The Least I Could Do

Yesterday, after buying a cup of tea and nine copies of Real Change, I cried in the grocery store.

It was cold out, below freezing. Snow fell off and on, some of it snow that had fallen the day before, stirred up and blown sideways by wind sharp enough it had teeth. The light was silver tarnished by winter clouds, though the sun’s generous nature would win out later and turn the day if not kind at least kinder. I’d got a good chill in my fingers and hands scraping the windshield — forgot to grab gloves on the way out the door. But by the time I had driven up the hill to the store I was warm all the way through.

Two days previous, I was swimming in an ocean warm as bath-water, jumping waves with my love and watching the sun set at the end of a week and a half in Costa Rica with Dr. Bae.

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Like this, only closer.

We’d been gone since before Christmas, so there was nothing to eat in the house. So I went to the grocery store. I didn’t bother to make a list. We needed, like, everything, all the stuff we usually have around, plus a couple of specific requests from Dr. Bae, which of course I’d remember. I was wearing four layers, wishing I’d put on more. Yeah I’d just come from paradise, where I’d lived in my bathing suit most of a week. But it was cold, man. Crossing the parking lot, I couldn’t wait to get inside.

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This is a pretty serious cold snap for the PNW.

Back when I was a bartender — back when I took most of my pay home in cash, and always had a wad of singles and fives in my pocket — I used to give money to just about every homeless person who asked. I got a buck for opening a beer; it was no big deal to kick down and help somebody out. I figured if they were bad off enough they needed to stand around outside and ask strangers for money, they needed it more than I did.

Since then, I don’t carry cash as much as I used to. Even if I was still a bartender, I probably wouldn’t: nowadays everybody pays with a card. Walking with all your tips is a thing of the past. Even if I do have cash, it’s usually in twenties, stuck away in my wallet just in case. Like yesterday.

I think it was because I was thinking about how cold I was that my eyes didn’t slide past the lady selling Real Change outside Safeway the way they so often do. Real Change is a fine publication, and as a card-carrying bleeding-heart liberal progressive social justice warrior I 100% approve of their undertaking and mission. But I also resent them, because I’ve already got more to read than I could possibly keep up with. So I’m basically buying a piece of recycling (or, depending on where you live, compost).

It’s a real conundrum, negotiating that particular intersectionality. Put simpler: life is complicated.

Except it wasn’t. I was freezing and I looked at the lady standing in the cold and decided I’d buy a paper and get her two dollars closer to wherever she was trying to get to. It seemed the least I could do.

“Can you break a twenty?”

“I don’t know. Let me see.”

She had to take off her gloves to count back the change. She had a hat on, and a jacket I might use as a mid-layer between my long underwear and my outer jackets.
She was shivering, the cold crept into her bones, it looked like. We talked a little while she counted change back. I let her get to sixteen and said I’d just make it easy on both of us and buy two. I asked her if I could get her anything inside: a bite of food or a hot drink. She asked for a hot tea and being a retired bartender I asked how she liked it.

“Just a hot tea with a little sugar in it.” Her hands were shaking so hard she had trouble putting her gloves back on.

I decided I’d get it right away. She was freezing, and I’ve been cold enough to know what that’s like. Even if I hadn’t, all it took was a half-functional set of mirror neurons to see how miserable she was. As I walked through the heated, well-stocked grocery store to the Starbucks I thought about my insulated mug I take everywhere. I use it to help reduce waste, sure. But mostly I use it because cardboard cups won’t keep your drink hot when it’s cold out, even if you double them up and put a sleeve on them. I decided I’d buy her one to keep her tea warm. I paid cash, kept the receipt so she could return it if she wanted, and keep the cash. I also decided I’d just buy the rest of her copies of Real Change so she could stop standing outside in the freezing cold while being ignored by people going into and out of the store. People like I usually am, when it’s not killing cold outside.

Her eyes lit up when I handed her the mug. She wouldn’t even take the receipt. I paid her ten bucks for the rest of her papers and her eyes lit up again.

“Thank you, sir! Now I’m-a go inside and get warm. It’s hard out here being homeless.”

“Do you have somewhere to stay?” She was clean and well-kempt. I’d hoped she was one of the vendors who aren’t out on the streets. Yet.

She told me a story about needing papers to get in a shelter, how if she could just get sixty dollars together she could get a room tonight. She could sleep somewhere warm. I asked her how much more she needed and she said it was just under twenty bucks.

I gave it to her. I said, “I would like you to sleep inside tonight, please.” I didn’t feel particularly virtuous. It was just what a person would say in that situation. What a person who could would do. Right?

Some intersectionalities aren’t hard to negotiate at all. Especially when you’ve got money and privilege to spare. Which I do.

I was not prepared for the tears that filled her eyes and spilled over, the profound look of relief on her face. She hugged me, said “You my angel.” I hugged her back, said it was the least I could do. Told her to go inside and get warm, please.

She went inside to the dining area by the deli and the Starbucks. I went the other way, into the produce section, my basket already half full between my reusable shopping bags and my nine new copies of Real Change.

I got about fifteen steps before the tears hit me. I was right by the first display, a cooler full of berries and grapes flown in from places like I’d just been on vacation so that people like me can still have fresh fruit even though it’s snowing outside.

Good thing I was wearing my ball cap. I was able to duck my head down, hide my eyes behind it. I brought my hand up, hoped it looked like I had a headache. Men aren’t supposed to cry in public. At all really. It’s unmasculine, like believing in the climate change that makes the winters in Seattle colder than they were twenty years ago, and the summers hot enough that fire season is a thing now.

I wandered the grocery store aisle by aisle. I forgot about half the things we needed, including both of Dr. Bae’s specific requests. I still had cash in my pocket, and I thought about seeing if the Real Change lady was still in the dining area. I could give the rest of it to her, or buy her a meal, or… something. But I didn’t. It’s not like I don’t need the money, don’t have my own bills and even a mortgage to pay. Besides, it’d be weird.

I saw Real Change lady again on my way out. She was hugging a nice liberal white lady, and asking for a little more help. Just because she had a place tonight didn’t mean there wasn’t tomorrow to worry about, and the next day after that. Lots of people with jobs and homes and even a little savings are in the same situation, that way. Always tomorrow to worry about. Nothing safe or sure in this world. It’s enough to break your heart open right in your chest.

And you know what else? It shouldn’t ought to be this way.

***

Most of us like to think we’re good people. At very least, we want other people to think so, or at least act like they do. Often as not in my experience, folks find being thought of as good more important than actually doing good. I used to be that way, too, til a few years ago, when I decided to come clean about some stuff. After that, I’m less worried about being good, and more worried about doing good. It’s good for my headspace (it’s anxiety-inducing AF to be constantly worried about others’ perceptions, while deciding to do a thing and then doing it is a nice boost to your dopamine levels and self-regard). It also seems to more actively increase the amount of good that I do, since people who think of themselves as good tend to get a little complacent.

But whatever my brain’s reward system did for me yesterday, whatever temporary good I did for the homeless lady out hustling in the freezing cold, let’s be real: it’s not even a drop in the bucket of what would need doing to fix the larger systemic failures of our fucked-up society that make it not only possible but inevitable that the woman I met yesterday would be desperate enough to stand outside in the freezing cold trying to sell newspapers to people who preferred to ignore her.

And I get why those people ignored her. Because if you see, I mean really see someone like that, if you let your mirror neurons activate, let your brain experience even the virtual facsimile of the desperation and suffering that lead to that situation, then, if you want to be a good person, you have to do something. And thanks to the society we’ve decided to have, or at least acceded to, who has the time or resources, really, to address that? For the most part, only the people who that society and the economic system that underpins it are working best for. The winners, if you will. And for the most part, you don’t get to be one of those people by letting your mirror neurons and human sympathy and conscience get in the way of getting ahead.

I find it profane, even obscene, that the richest nation in the history of the world chooses not to see to it that all its citizens are taken care of. It’s not like we can’t. We just choose not to, whether because of cynicism, or ennui, or because we think that’s just the way things are and always have been.

(Not all of us, of course. Lots of people fight the good fight, and I salute and support them. But on balance… well, things are as they are, aren’t they?]

If we want the kind of society where no one has to stay outside when it’s freezing cold, it’s going to take changes so big it’s easy to throw our hands up and say it can’t be done. But big change starts with small changes that we decide, each of us, to make in our own lives. We have to choose to see the ones who are suffering, let our mirror neurons do their thing. And then do what we can to help, in the moment and after, according to our privilege and ability.

For me, I’m going to make sure I carry cash all the time now, in small bills I can spare. I urge you do the same, if you can. If you can’t, this Seattle Times article has some helpful actions you can take. And we can all do our part in the social and political realm, voting and calling and pressuring the people we elect.

It’s really the least we can do.

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