Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I've Just Seen a Face

Like all cities, we have some fairly aggressive pan handlers here in Portland. One of our locals is is particularly bad shape. Aside from his gaunt, toothless, limping, loud self, he has to wear a catheter strapped to his leg. I'm sure his kidneys gave out a few years ago, and from his sunburned, painfully thin, scraggily bearded appearance, probably doesn't have long to go. In winter when the temperature dips under 30 degrees and he disappears for a few days, I feel sure we might not see him again. But he reappears.
When he sees me buy a newspaper out in front of my local coffee shop, he times his move. "Hey Buddy..." Often, I give him a quarter. I have bought him coffee before, but since the catheter, sometimes his pants are wet or his cuffs are dripping and I generally try to say away from anything that might impact his bladder. I know he eats, because I've seen the hyena gaze he gives when he's devouring something, like a person who hasn't had anything to eat in a while. People give him cigarettes, so he's able to maintain his nicotine stained face and hands easily.
Last week, while having dinner with my mother-in-law, her new significant other, a sister-in-law and her husband, and my wife, Katie, we were talking about our adapting to Portland and some of the perceived differences between living there and the Bay Area. Since it was Jenny's (my sister-in-law) and Katie's birthday dinner, we were in a fancy Italian restaurant in Layfayette, California, an upscale bedroom community of San Francisco. When Katie and I mentioned some of our new friends, it didn't take long for her to say that I have a favorite street person that I subsidize. "He even says, hey buddy, where's my quarter? if Bruce doesn't give him anything," Katie noted. "Yeah, he's aggressive," I conceded, "but one look at him and it's fairly obvious he's in bad shape. He won't be going to any job interviews tomorrow," I said.
Immediately by brother-in law, followed by my mother-in law's new suitor, launched into the familiar strain about how giving money to a street person is not really helping them. The bro-in-law even told story attributed to some construction workers of a blind man near their work site who used to collect a good income until one day one of them, testing his honesty tried to take his cup. "That guy grabbed it back, he could see all the time."
Now I'm sure versions of this urban tale exist as far back as the Great Depression. They then proceeded to tell me how much income street people often make. As they each took another sip from their $10.00 glass of wine and swallowed a bite from their $25.00 entree, I thought, my God, it's only a quarter!
Weighing my options, I could have responded in any number of ways. What I did say was, "You know, Buddha says that when you see a beggar you see the face of God."
"Do you really believe that?" came the reply from the one with the multi-million dollar portfolio.
All I said, and to myself at that, was it's only a quarter.

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