This was a while ago already – months and months, maybe a couple of years. Yet I think of him more often than I do of most others like him. He was sitting on a sidewalk in Center City Philly, and I was riding in a car, a friend driving us to a concert. We stopped at a red light, and I watched him sit there, cross-legged, slumped against the wall, some sort of cup or bowl in front of him – I don’t remember now. I watched him through the moving bodies of the street crowd passing by. They all walked past, and no one stopped, and I saw on his face that he was no longer expecting them to. Quiet resentment. Resignation.
In the middle of a narrow Philly street, bursting-full of metal almost rubbing surfaces, honking impatiently, leaking through in inch-and-yard increments like blood cells through a capillary, I could only get out by creating a disturbance. The light could turn any second. I contemplated doing it anyway, throwing calculations together in my head of seconds it would take me to fish some cash out of my wallet that was in my bag that was on the back seat and to jump out and back in – and then it was too late. I saw green up ahead and felt the queue before us shudder and come awake.
That’s when the man on the sidewalk raised his head and looked at me. Didn’t just glance – locked eyes with me, and for those two or three seconds we understood each other. For two or three seconds I was sure that he knew exactly how sorry I was, and about what. And his resentment and my guilt collided in mid-air and shattered and melted each other into nothing – and, just as traffic began to move, he smiled at me and nodded and folded his hand into a peace sign. I remember him that way, with little web-like wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, smiling and shifting back, away from me. I’ve never seen him again as far as I recall.
He was young, no older than 35, I think – an apparently healthy enough man. Quite a few of them are on the streets of Philadelphia, asking for change. It could mean this or that – God only knows what. PTSD, addiction, mental or physical illness, a spiral of life that’s gotten so deep there doesn’t seem to be a way out… Or a con. Or one of a hundred other things.
The answer is, “I don’t.”
No, that’s wrong. I do. Under any circumstances that would let me, I would rather give him more than money – care. I would rather give him help less transient and more profound. I would rather know. But I can’t always give it – and it’s not always wanted. More often than not, we pass each other in the streets for only a few moments. Sometimes, for an exchange of names, maybe fake. Sometimes to exchange stories. Or for a few dollars to change hands, and nothing more.
More often than not, I don’t have the option to know. I have only one choice: to stop or not to stop; to give a stranger money or not to give it. That’s it.
I don’t always stop. As happened on that day and many other times, I’ve gotten hurried and careless and selfish. And out of cash. But the question of whether or not I should stop does not plague me; I made it once and for all a long time ago. Facing a person desperate enough to sit down on a filthy Philadelphia sidewalk to stare at the shoes of the rest of us, who have places to go, I’ll take a risk. Will he buy drugs with this money? Will he give it to a criminal? I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to the money I give to a salesman in a store – it too could buy drugs or sex or pay for a hit man.
We don’t know what happens to things or to people of which we let go. Such is the nature of free will and of linear time. But we know what happens to people who feel alone in the crowd, passed by day after day. And we know what happens when someone stops.