The Man by the Freeway

He was carrying a sign, standing beside the inside turn before you entered the freeway. I didn’t have to read the sign; I knew what he wanted. Money for food.

A few months ago someone who looked like a woman with very short hair but might have been a small man approached me while I walked in our neighborhood. Each time this person asked me if I knew somewhere she could get free food. This put me in a mild panic, I mumbled something and walked quickly away.

I never carry money with me when I walk. I don’t want to give a potential drug addict money that might go to buy drugs.

As I thought over these brief encounters, in the midst of unemployment even among our friends, and news briefs about families needing food, I decided to buy three gift cards from a fast food chain not far from us. I gave one card to my husband and asked him to keep it in his car in case he passed someone asking for food.

This morning on our way to a family Christmas gift exchange and brunch across the river, we passed the man with the sign.

This season every year I feel a little sick: we have so much. As we stopped for the light before crossing the intersection and entering the freeway, I felt a strong need to give this gift card to the man standing beside the freeway.

My husband loves Christmas. He grew up poor, the son of a missionary/preacher first in China, then in small Congregational Churches in the U.S. South and Midwest. His parents were almost always more liberal in their politics than the parishioners. His father was asked to leave several churches.

My husband has spent his adulthood attempting to make up for the lack of abundance in his childhood. I don’t know any other adult who is so enthralled by Christmas. He wakes up in the dark and stares at the presents under the tree, not quite believing they are there. Now that he has grandsons (they are the youngest generation in the family), he is lit by an inner fire. He was in a rush this morning, to bring Christmas to these boys. Never a placid, easy driver, he was truly ablaze to cross that river and begin the dazzle,

When I pointed out the man and said, “Let’s find the food gift card,” we were in the lane leading straight to the freeway. Not the turn lane where the man stood. The light was about to change, we had the gift card in hand, but at the last minute, my husband said, “No, it’s too dangerous,” meaning he didn’t want to move left into the turn lane, take the time to pause and hand the card out the window, and then turn left. This would have taken us several blocks out of our way.

We sped through the green light onto the freeway. Immediately, I was deeply troubled. Angry at him for his haste, angry at myself for not insisting that help the man, and torn with grief at how much we have.

Christmas carols were playing on the radio: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Mary, meek and mild, brought to earth a little child,” “Come, let us adore Him.”

We had just been talking about his parents, not so much their missionary work, their lives of Christian goodness, but simply themselves, as they were when I met them, well past middle age, gentle but sometimes goofy spirits. The kind of people who wear clothes until then are threadbare because they would rather give money to those who have less. Such generosity can sometimes look like poverty and can embarrass grown-up children who may themselves have been ridiculed because they looked poor when they were younger.

During the twenty minutes it took for us to cross the river and reach my son-in-law’s house, I wept. When I didn’t speak, my husband asked me what was wrong. I couldn’t believe he didn’t know. “We have so much,” I said. “It would have taken only a few extra minute to go out of our way and help a stranger who was hungry.”

It seems to me, as I rather bleakly look back over this missed chance, that we are quite typical. We write checks to good causes, we sympathize with friends and even strangers in trouble, but we rarely approach this kind of trouble face to face. It would require a freedom and the moral courage we don’t seem to have. We’d have to put aside our comforts and certainties. Risk rebuff or ostracism. I know only a few who venture into such actions alone, and they have an awkward, even childlike caste to their characters. I have rarely allowed myself to be so naked.

Yet what I kept repeating to myself this morning still echoes: “We have so much.” I want the next time to have resolve and confidence. To go out of my way for what I know, instinctively, is the right thing to do. I want to give away my comfort and let myself come face to face with need. Maybe this childlikeness I’ve noticed in those who do so is joy, the best kind because it’s given away.

  1. Anonymous

    I enjoy references to Fran. I feel like I’m getting to know him just a little.
    Barb P

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