About a year ago, a friend was sitting at a light in Baltimore where some ‘squeegee kids’ were washing car windows and collecting tips. It’s not as common as intersection cardboard sign panhandling, but it’s pretty prevalent. And, naturally, there is some angst about it.
After her windshield was cleaned, she wanted to encourage the kids’ entrepreneur-ism and industriousness. She opened her window and pulled her purse into her lap, rooting around for some spare change.
But she never had a chance to find any. In a flash, a boy snatched the purse from her, disappearing into an alley. Dazed, she watched the light turn green, but couldn’t move forward. The car behind her blasted its horn.
We had come from different directions, so had two cars. After the performance, we went our separate ways. My trip home was uneventful; Nora’s wasn’t.
Driving up Calvert Street, she just happened to see an elderly woman trip and fall on the sidewalk. Nora quickly pulled over and ran to her side. She had a couple wadded tissues in her purse that she used to staunch the woman’s bleeding hand.
How did she feel? Where did she live? Before long, Nora dropped her off at her senior living facility, into the hands of staff there. It wasn’t exactly a Good Samaritan moment, but Nora felt fortunate that she had seen the fall, and satisfied that she could help.
Fast forward to two months ago when a couple driving home late from a Baltimore birthday party saw a woman in the rain who appeared to be cradling a baby. She had a sign that said “Please help me feed my baby.”
The wife’s heart was moved and she asked her husband to stop. She opened her window and passed $10 to her.
Out of the dark appeared a man who wanted to “thank” the giver. He approached the woman’s open window and started stabbing her in the chest, while yanking her necklace free.
A sick coda: the panhandling woman said “God bless you” as she grabbed the donor’s purse and ran into the dark with the knife-wielding man. The woman died, and neither perpetrator has been found.
A week later, I was pouring wine a quarter mile away from the scene of that horrific crime. Pippa’s school was hosting its annual Wine Tasting and I was volunteering as a member of the Father’s Club.
I finished my bar-tending shift and descended the school’s historic slate stairs. It was cold and dark outside.
In the school lobby, I paused to put on my coat. I waved to the security guy there. “Where you headed?” he asked.
“The corner,” I pointed. It was half a block away.
“There are five youths loitering at that corner,” he said with a stern look, gesturing toward his bank of monitors. “I recommend you wait here for now.”
“Nah, I’m going to head out. You keep an eye on me and come rescue me if I need it,” I responded. I had a plate full of sweets I’d pinched from the party that I could always distribute if things got tense, I figured. 😉
The security guy’s self-seriousness was totally over the top, but he was probably right to worry somewhat. By most any measure, Baltimore is a dangerous city. It has more than its share of poverty, drug addiction, gangs, and crime.
How to Respond?
How should we respond to menacing or needy people on the street? Should we engage? How?
Overall, I think engagement is good. It affirms the basic dignity of people, all of whom are created in God’s image.
There are limits, of course. I withhold my affirming in certain neighborhoods late at night, for example. My mom says “Nothing good happens in the city after midnight.” That’s a gross over-generalization, but there’s a kernel of truth in it.
I don’t generally give cash, because it’s hard to know where the money goes, and there is some vulnerability in the exchange. Rather, I donate to places like Helping Up Mission, a Christian addiction treatment and homeless shelter.
And I like to donate food, which is usually happily received. The doggy bag from a restaurant, or grocery items in the Safeway parking lot.
I know some people who won’t even cross into the city. In a car even. “It’s too dangerous,” they say.
It is dangerous, but life is dangerous. Every year in the U.S.:
- 40,100 people die in car accidents
- 5,984 pedestrians are struck and killed
- 335 people die by drowning in a bathtub
Everyone who has ever lived has died or will die. Life is a death sentence. It’s only by the grace of God that we wake up every morning.
Just recently, Nora received an unexpected email at her school:
This is a very belated note to thank you for stopping on Calvert Street in July in order to see if I needed help after I had fallen on the sidewalk. You were so kind to pick me up and then to drive me home to [my care facility]. I have told many people of your thoughtfulness, but I wasn’t sure how to get in touch with you. This problem was solved a few days ago when I talked to the daughter of [friends] who are residents here. I knew that her son had gone to [your school] and I thought that she would know you. I was right and she gave me your address.
I shall always remember your kindness. It actually took my mind away from my injuries – broken but not badly wrist and some loosened teeth. I have recovered well and my memory of tripping has more or less vanished while your calmness and helpfulness remain. Many thanks again.
After that email, I’m sure Nora will continue to engage with people on the street.
I will too.
Have you had any positive or negative encounters with strangers on the street?