“Can you help a brother out?”
I had seen him as I walked past, a black man of about my dad’s age – mid-70s maybe – his face weathered and grizzled with gray beard, his clothes ragged. Had he not spoken, I probably would have looked right past him. It is not a rare sight, a threadbare person outside these sliding doors, cup out for money.
I pause and open my purse, check my wallet and find three ones.
I don’t always give money to street people, but I have a soft spot for all old men, and especially lonely looking old men.
But they’ll just go buy booze or drugs, people tell me, as if those few dollars are better spent on yet another overpriced coffee, or flowers, or any of the dozens of unnecessary things I’d likely spend them on.
My answer is a shrug. I don’t care what they spend it on – once I give it to them it is money in their pocket, it is their money to spend. I have no right or desire to dictate how they will spend it. The way I see it, I’m not willing to give them what they really need – my time. I’m not willing to offer a job, or a place to sleep, a suit of clean clothes. Money is the thing I’m able to give right now. Sometimes I do.
If they spend it on beer or whiskey, well, maybe that beer will make them feel better for a day or two, until someone else comes along who IS willing to give their time and more meaningful help. Maybe that’s worth something.
You’re just salving your conscience, one friend said. Liberal white guilt, etc. Maybe that’s true. I don’t care about that either.
I give the man $3 and he breaks into a sunny smile. Thank you, miss, he says, and I laugh because I am no miss, I am 50 years old. My miss days are way behind me.
It’s a beautiful day, he observes.
It is, I agree amiably. San Francisco summers are typically foggy. I figure I last saw the sun two weeks ago, but today is a corker, clear and mellow with sunshine.
What’s your name, I ask, and he tells me: Memphis.
Are you a musician, I ask, and he says no, his daddy just gave him this name. My daddy looooved Memphis, he said.
Well, it beats Cincinnati, anyway, I say, and we both laugh.
What’s YOUR name, he asks in turn, and for some reason, I give him my nickname, the one only my family uses – not my husband and kids family, but my mom and dad and siblings family.
I extend my hand, and we shake. His hand is hard and calloused and surprisingly small for a tall man. My dad has small hands, too – no bigger than mine, though I am quite small even for a woman.
As I shop, I remember a story my sister told me on a recent visit home, about something that happened years ago. She and dad were driving along, and spotted a man with a handmade cardboard sign. They passed him without comment, but hours later, returning home, saw him again, though it had begun to rain. Dad drove past, then, to my sister’s surprise, stopped the car and rifled through his wallet, liberating a $20 and a $5.
He got out of the car and went back to the man. They talked briefly and shook hands.
Back in the car dad said Poor guy, standing there all day. My sister stared at him in open-mouthed surprise.
What? he asked, irritated at the goofy way she was smiling at him.
He doesn’t like people to know that he has a soft heart, my sister said. But he does.
I think this would surprise most people who know him, but maybe not. It was not a side I saw often, growing up in the hothouse of his frequent rages.
Exiting the store, I see Memphis is still there, his misshapen paper cup still extended for donations. I cannot wave, my hands are full of heavy bags, but I lift my chin in his direction and smile.
Bye Memphis, I say, and he rises from the dirty overturned milk crate he is seated on and gives me a courtly bow that has a bit of remembered grace. I wonder if he has daughters, or sons, and where they are now.
Bye pretty lady, he says and I think, maybe he doesn’t even remember me by now, and that wouldn’t be surprising at all. He looks like he’s been living rough for a long time.
But as I walk off, I hear him say my name, low, almost to himself. Bye, Sandy.
There is only one man over 70 that calls me that, but not very often – dad and I don’t speak much these days. That recent visit to my sister was the first in three years. I miss my family, but after that last fight, I don’t go home as often as I used to.
He doesn’t approve of my lifestyle, which is code for my politics, which he thinks have been changed by my west coast location, which isn’t the case. I was always a liberal misfit in the conservative midwest. And I’ve always been dangerously soft-hearted.
Unexpectedly, tears spring to my eyes, but I am smiling as I drive home. The day is too beautiful not to.
I think I’ll give dad a call.