It snowed! Well, it dusted. All week long, the possibility of snow was making headline news. Then it became a certainty and that was breaking headline news. Names for the upcoming event were flying: Snowpocalypse! Snowmaggedon! By morning today it was obvious that we had dodged a snowy bullet, most areas getting less than an inch. More like the Big Flakeout. Still, schools were closed and the news continued to run a steady series of images showing how bad it might have been.
One thing they seem to have gotten right, though, and that’s the frigid temperatures. Record-breaking cold temperatures, down into the teens, are predicted for the next couple of nights. Whenever it gets very cold, there’s a lot of talk about the danger to people living on the streets. Emergency warming shelters open in churches and other facilities, and numerous twitter feeds announce their locations and capacity.
I can’t imagine not being able to get inside to get warm. I hate being cold and am pretty much of a wuss about it. For that matter, I hate being hot, too. I guess I’m just kind of a wuss. I like to think I would toughen up if needed, but I don’t think I’d last long on the street.
So, as I set out on my way today I was thinking about all this and how maybe I could offer some help to someone who was out in the cold. One of my errands took me down Broadway near Goodwill. I spotted a dark bundle at the corner and, once out of the car, saw that it was Carrie, whom I had met in November. She was sitting on an overturned bucket, shivering. She looked exhausted. It was starting to snow.
I went over to say hello and she looked at me rather blankly. “You’re Carrie, right?” I asked her. She nodded. “How are you doing?” “I’m cold,” she said. It’s freezing out here. I can’t feel my toes.”
Her sign said she could get a room at the Joyce Hotel for $18. I asked if she had enough money to get a room for the next couple of nights and she shook her head. “Not even close. I have about three dollars. It’s really hard right now.”
The C-note was weighing heavy in my pocket. By some unwritten rule, I’ve never given a gift to the same person twice. I actually turned down a request (via email) by one of my recipients for additional assistance, although I pondered both sides of that one for days. And, I felt just the tiniest bit hurt that Carrie didn’t seem to recognize me. I wanted to do something, so decided to get change for the hundred and give her a twenty.
I went into Goodwill and asked if they could give me change. “No, sorry, I can’t just open my register,” explained the cashier. I looked around for something really cheap to buy. Maybe I’d get Carrie some decent gloves; hers had holes in them that her fingers were poking through. I looked at the books and was surprised to see that they were, like, five or six dollars for a used paperback.
A couple of people were lined up to pay. “Once your register is open, can you give me change?” I asked. “Yes, I can,” she replied. As I was standing in the line I was watching Carrie through the window. She had gotten up and was standing right next to the building. A well-dressed woman came up to her, then started burrowing through a shopping bag. She pulled out a big cardboard container of food and held it out. As if in slow motion, I saw Carrie open the box, steam rising from the large portion of food inside. She smiled at the woman and they exchanged a few words. Then Carrie crouched down and started to eat.
I was still inside, waiting for my change. I felt really petty. And cheap. Here I had set out to bring a little warmth to someone who needed it, and there was someone right in front of me whose toes were frozen. How arrogant and self-centered to think that she would (should) remember me after months of deprivation and hardship I couldn’t even fathom.
Finally the cashier had the register open and I handed her the bill. “Oh,” she said. “I don’t know if I can do that.” She had to call a supervisor over to make sure the bill wasn’t counterfeit. Then she rifled through and under her cash drawer and finally gave me a fifty, two twenties, a five and five ones.
Back outside, it was snowing hard and miserably cold. Carrie was shivering on the bucket. We made a little small talk then I handed her all the money. “It’s enough for a room. Please get out of the cold.” She looked down at it and saw the fifty. Then she looked at me. “I remember you,” she said slowly. “In all the time I’ve been on the street, no one else has ever done that for me.”
The whole thing made me incredibly sad. I hate that there are problems too big to fix, like poverty and homelessness. I can’t bear that lives like Carrie’s are being wasted. I still struggle mightily with what it means to be human and how to make the world a little bit better. And I don’t like the parts of myself that are small-minded and self-absorbed.
The snow has let up and our furnace has been running nonstop, a sure sign that the temperature outside is dropping.
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