I had never truly experienced the joy of giving. Oh, there were the usual gifts on holidays and special occasions, all of which were purchased with the usual care. But when did I truly feel the “spirit” which should accompany the expression? Where was the happiness that should reward the heart of the giver?
So far in my young life, it seemed, I had failed to give of myself beyond the call of duty, even though I prided myself in giving some degree of compassionate service: babysitting, chauffeuring, helping in a crisis situation. But these were mediocre extensions of myself which deserved only modest praise and approval.
Not that I was looking for a ripe occasion to be benevolent. Not by a long shot! Age twenty-two was a reasonably sound, selfish age. But time and fate were conspiring to give me an opportunity to change my attitude.
It was January 1973. Christmas had come and gone—an ordinary holiday with much too much rushing about.
Each day I rode the regular commuter coach from Hayward to San Francisco, and joined the throngs of office workers hurrying to their daily routine of earning a living. I had trained my channels of sensory perception to shut down completely during my mechanized march to the office each morning. I neither saw, heard, felt, nor tasted anything. My hide was toughened to endure the pushing, jostling sea of people. I was a true San Francisco commuter; I enjoyed the unheralded distinction of being alone in the crowd. Certainly no one would dare require anything of me during this period of the day.
Until I met him. “He” was not a real human being to me—but a decrepit, whiskey-guzzling wretch, a beggar with a stench that merited neither attention nor pity. He was dressed in the season’s latest panhandler ensemble: black trousers torn at each knee, with frayed cuffs; grey-green T-shirt complete with air-conditioning vent holes; a woolen shirt of undetermined color, whose buttons obviously had come from someone else’s shirt; and a thin, dirty jacket. A pair of wooden crutches supported his frail body. A worn baseball cap managed to keep some of the rain off his bewhiskered face.
My automatic pilot commanded me to jam my hands into my pockets, offering no small change for his extended hand. I also pulled down my rain hat to avoid sympathetic glances, and turned up my collar to muffle any demands falling upon my ears. I held firm to the code of honor among the bands of commuters. I did not give in.
I quickly forgot this small interruption in my day, only to have it repeated several mornings later. Then, one chilly morning as I passed the freezing beggar, my conscience began to stir and the Ghost of Christmas Past began to speak from the distance. I shifted uncomfortably and reasoned that I was not responsible for his human annihilation—it was his error in life, not mine. Besides, what could I possibly do for him? I had no power to make him well and whole again. Yet the man’s image pricked my cold armor sufficiently to form a chink right where my heart was. I had to admit I was sorry for the poor wreck.
And with this remarkable show of feeling, I expected my conscience to accept and withdraw. It didn’t. When I walked into church on Sunday, I was smothered in feelings of hypocrisy and guilt for my lack of concern. Every conceivable emotion and gospel virtue bullied me with salvos of Christian demands. Finally I responded to the promptings of my heart. I would help this poor creature.
But how? I could not help to salvage his life by shoving money into his grimy palm. He would only ravage himself with more liquor. Well, then, how about food? That was it. I would pack him a hearty lunch. When was the last time he’d enjoyed a brown bag lunch? The only thing he would carry around in a brown paper bag was a bottle. I wondered if he remembered what a ham and cheese on rye was like.
Carefully I coordinated my image of a big hungry man with a three-pound, solid, three-course meal, which I shoved into the refrigerator with satisfaction that night. In my prayers, I told my Father in heaven my strategy, as if he and I were plotting a surprise party.
Monday morning, as I approached the corner the old man had inhabited for nearly two weeks and prepared to extend my offering, my heart was pounding with the goodly rhythm of human kindness. And I was greeted by a blank wall. He had gone—walked out on me—deserted! This skid-row personality who had haunted me for nearly two weeks had dared to vanish.
In disappointment I quickened my step and began what I knew would be a rotten day. It was. And the next, and the next. Two weeks went by, and I had decided to forget about my act of charity. Then one day as I walked impassively toward the street corner, my eyes darted beyond the Don’t Walk sign—and there he was! Nothing had changed. He was his old filthy self, staggering to support himself on his crutches, his hand extended for the day’s alms.
My first impulse was to ignore him. Besides, I had no hefty lunch to offer. “But you have an orange in your purse,” my conscience spoke.
“Yes, I do,” I retorted, “but what would he do with an orange?”
“Give it to him and see,” my conscience battled.
“No. No, I don’t want to.” But my conscience took over and guided my hand to my purse to rummage for the orange. It was a great physical contest; I hesitated as I approached him, but in the end extended my hand and put the orange into his palm.
I paused and looked under the bill of the baseball hat. His eyes remained fixed on the orange for a second, and then slowly he raised his eyes to mine—the prettiest blue eyes I had ever seen, set in the filthiest face. They were Paul Newman-blue eyes, amid a network of livid red and white. His mouth began to move, but no sound came. I smiled. He nodded and clutched the prized orange to his chest. No words were exchanged. None were necessary.
There on the corner of Mission and Fremont streets in the city of San Francisco, the spirit of giving, the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the angels who herald Christian acts applauded long and loud in my heart. The beggarman gave me a great and treasured gift. I knew what it meant to give.
I took a long, deep breath and turned away, still smiling. My steps resounded on the pavement as I continued my trek. Suddenly my eyes were open to the street scene, my ears heard the accompanying sounds, and I smelled the conglomerate odors of an early San Francisco morning.