Monday, June 20, 2011

What the homeless men taught me about mothering Pt.1

“S’cuse me! Miss! How old’s the little girl?”

I slowed my jogging stroller and yanked an ear bud out of my ear. I had come up alongside two homeless men and their shopping cart where they had settled in the shade along the college jogging track which I had just found earlier in the week. I had sort of asked for this. I was new in town, still so glad to finally be living in the same state as my husband that I smiled at everything—even homeless men.

I pivoted the stroller so they could see my pretty baby industriously blowing raspberries from the bonds of her five-point safety harness. The two of them were seated on the lowest bench on a riser of bleachers. I noticed a few college students glance up from their laptops at our exchange. I was getting pretty used to the glances, having just moved into a college town with my three kids-- the only kids in the entire town as far as we could tell—we were used to stares. I took these current stares as a good sign, I sure had enough witnesses if one of the men tried something.

“She just turned a year.” I said, yanking out my other ear bud to make sure I wasn’t talking too loud.

“Ah! Did she get a chocolate bunny for Easter?”

I laughed, a little surprised at what a friendly question this was. “No. Poor thing doesn’t have any teeth, yet.”

They introduced themselves, not holding out hands to shake, but smiling. The talkative one was Michael. His companion who sat within arm’s reach of a shopping cart laden with coats and glass bottles was Russell. Now that I was at conversation distance to them, they both looked nice. Happy, not dirty, and coherent. I actually wondered if I had made a hasty generalization about them being homeless just because of their proximity to a shopping cart and their advanced age in a town of 18-22 year olds.

Michael continued, “How about ice cream? Did she get any of that?”

I glanced down at the little bald pate of my daughter. “No…” I didn’t want to get into how her pediatrician had warned against milk products until she was a year old, and that she, poor neglected child number three, had yet to try ice cream though she had already blown out her first candle. I covered with, “She had a jelly bean, though.”

I could feel my target heart rate sinking and felt the pull to get back to my workout before my other two charges tired of playing in the long-jump box that I’d directed them to use as a sandbox so that mommy could get in just one mile of uninterrupted sweating. I gave the two men a closed-mouth smile, the one that I used for farewells and lifted a foot toward the padded track.

“Hey, from the heart… from the heart.” Michael, the quieter one, said, as he reached toward me and put his hand to his breast. His companion nodded and did the same. I didn’t know what he was talking about and that confusion paused me.

He had removed his wallet from the depths of the green shopping cart. In a flash it was open and I was momentarily fixated on the fact that though it was unmistakably a wallet, it was drastically different from my own. Dusty, no credit cards and though I could only glimpse the edges of a few green bills within; none of them were crisp. I started to shimmy sideways as to make my imminent escape as fluid as possible. I had come out to jog. I didn’t have any money on me and wanted to save them the embarrassment of what I assumed was coming. The thought flashed through my brain that as ‘do unto others’ as I was, I’d been the wife of a medical student long enough, was so used to barely scraping by, that I generally didn’t feel able to give away money even if I did have a few bucks on me.

“It was nice meeting you both. Say goodbye, Scarlett,” I looked down at my baby as a way of dropping eyes with them. I had managed two steps.

“From the heart.” Michael repeated, and looked at me with soft eyes. He then extended his hand to my baby girl and placed a ragged dollar bill in her pudgy fist.

I felt my eyes bug and my stomach tighten. What had just happened? I threw a glance over at the shopping cart, just to make sure that it did, in fact, hold the trappings of what I guessed homeless people to have. Ohmigosh! A homeless man had just given my baby a dollar!

I took the bill from her clutch and held it back to them. “No. No, that is so kind of you, but, no. We couldn’t.” Michael backed away from my offered hand, not looking at me anymore. I’m guessing I must have been some kind of sight, white lady freaking out the moment the world wasn’t just what she expected. I advanced on them, dollar leading the way, pleading for them to take it back. Bits of my own life and the value I personally placed on a dollar flashed before my eyes-- the solitary two times in her life that my 8 year old had ever been to an ice-cream parlor; the times when I actually walked with three small children across town vs. take the two-dollar subway ride. But I always had a roof over our head, insurance, tasty food. My brain quickly extrapolated what a dollar must mean to these men. I shoved it at them more aggressively.

Michael looked up at me, more than a bit sad, and just as quickly looked down. He spoke quietly, “I’ve had a lot taken away from me. But you can’t take away my bein’ generous.”

I swallowed hard and blinked as the arm in which I clutched the bill dropped. Russell was nodding at me. “From the heart. We want the little girl to have ice cream.”

I couldn’t get my eyebrows to fall, but I did my best to rearrange my face to look less like a white woman taking money from two homeless men, and more like a person being given a gift. “Thank you,” I said with a flustered smile as I gave the bill back to my toddler. “It’s very generous of you. Thank you.”

Later that night, I couldn’t sleep for the guilt. I had taken money from a homeless man. What kind of monster was I? What was I thinking? There had to have been a way to get out of that situation.

    Read part 2 here:


Sara Beth said...

Love it!

Katie and Lane said...

I'm being taught by homeless gurus too! A drunk homeless guy asked me for money for "fix-a-flat" the other day and taught me that even shopping carts must get flat tires.
Thanks for sharing this story. It made me laugh. and cry a little. and laugh.--Lane

Tiffany said...

Jenny -- this is great! off to part two!