When I was a kid, I really didn’t think much about social issues. As long as my needs were being met, my circle of concern extended about as far as the span of my outstretched arms. I’m sure there were plenty of problems community groups and not-for-profit organizations were grappling with during my childhood, but I was, for the most part, oblivious to it all. A couple of minor exceptions being…
One Halloween season, I wore a clown costume and went door to door soliciting donations for UNICEF. I also dutifully complied with parental instructions to finish all the food on my plate because there were “starving children in China who would be very happy to have that food.” (This admonition generally did not serve to heighten my compassion for unfortunate children half way around the globe, but rather provoked the silent response, “Then why can’t we just put it in a box and send it to them? I’m sure Chinese children could learn to like black eyed peas and hominy…”) I also remember hearing or seeing promotions for the March of Dimes and Easter Seals, but beyond that… not much thought given to the wider range of social issues.
The problem of homelessness never even entered my consciousness simply because my entire reality was within the context of home. 1418 Oliver Avenue, in fact. If I was securely nestled in a domicile, then surely, I might reason, everyone else was too. The closest I came to having my cozy little misconception busted happened one warm and sunny afternoon. I was making a bee line for the back yard, hands on the screen door ready to push it open, when I stopped dead in my tracks. I turned on my heels and headed back through the mud room to find my mom.
“I know,” she replied, with her voice lowered.
“What’s he doing there?”
“He knocked on the door and said he was hungry and asked if we had anything to eat. Sometimes when people need food, they know to knock on the back door and lots of folks will give them something to eat.”
That’s it? They just knock on the door and expect a perfect stranger to offer food? And this is considered good manners???
“So who is he?”
“I don’t know him. He’s probably a hobo.”
“Well, some men like to move around a lot, so they ride in freight cars to get from place to place. Then when they get somewhere they need a few meals until they find work.”
That made sense. We didn’t live too far from railroad tracks. I moved closer to the screen door to get a better look. Yep, he had one of our dinner plates in hand and seemed to be enjoying his meal. Hmmm. What a curious sight.
Mom must have read my body language and anticipated my next move. “Let’s just let him eat in peace,” she said. I think she knew I’d pepper him with questions if given half a chance (once I got over my initial reaction, that is), so she spared him my interrogation. I stood there watching a little while longer, then lost interest and went off to play elsewhere. However, the implications of some folks not having permanent homes and being dependent upon the largess of strangers was quite difficult to grasp and would continue to pop into my conscious thoughts for some time afterward. I pondered these very foreign ideas.
However, through this transaction, I gained a new regard for my mom. I would have predicted she’d be far more wary of strangers than that. Her willingness to provide the man sustenance surprised me a lot, but in a good way. She had demonstrated a previously hidden dimension of kindness and genuine charity that impressed and imprinted my young sensibilities. I was proud of both her open pantry and generous heart.
However, I do wish she’d have let me talk to him. I wish I could have found out why he was passing through. Did he have family? Where were they? What kind of work did he hope to find? What was his next destination? You know… the very kinds of questions my mom wanted to spare him. But I would have been fascinated by his story. Well, unless his story was untidy and contained a hefty dose of loss and anguish, I suppose. But he might have had the good sense to filter it for a G-rated listener. Mom probably just didn’t want to run the risk.
I’m a lot older now. Over the years, I’ve heard enough tales of loss and anguish that they’re no longer off-putting; I consider them an expected, though unfortunate, aspect of the human condition. I’m also lucky enough to live in a location where occasionally a passer-by will see me on my front porch and approach me with a request for something to eat. Sometimes I gather some nonperishable items in a box for them to take; other times I’ve put together a sandwich or warmed something up from the frig. And if they’re inclined to open up, it’s always my pleasure to hear their story. Where they’re from. If they have family. What their next destination might be. You know, the same interrogation I would have launched decades earlier. Because I still love people’s stories.
And because I believe a load shared isn’t nearly as heavy.