“One more damn thing to do,” Marie grumbled as she hauled the bags of groceries into the kitchen. She looked back along the trail of muddy foot prints, and the puddle growing steadily larger next to the open front door from wind-blown rain. Marie dropped the bags heavily on the table and winced, remembering the egg carton. She grabbed a handful of paper towels and stomped back across the floor before she thought to slip her shoes off.
“Lovely,” she muttered under her breath. “Now you can see me coming and going.” The path of muddy prints were lighter but still clearly there.
Ten minutes later Marie had mopped up the mess and put the groceries away. The mud would need to dry before she could vacuum the footprints up off the carpet. Grabbing a cheesestick and apple, she dashed out to the car. Even if she broke the speed limit, she’d be late for class.
Class was a required lecture hall for her Masters in Social Work, and they had been focusing pretty heavily on poverty-based issues for the last several weeks. Marie had grown up in a working class family. Her mother and father both worked long, hard hours – as did all her siblings – to make sure everyone had food and clothing and clean and warm home. Nothing fancy, mind you — but filling, mended and dry. She had a hard time relating to the poverty the instructor was introducing them to, coming from a family that took the “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” belief to the utter limits of self-sufficiency. It was better to make homemade presents or to do without than stand in line at Salvation Army to make sure there were presents under the Christmas Tree.
Starting the car, Marie looked at the gas gauge and groaned. She was on empty. Great! Now she’d be even later for the lecture because empty would not get her to campus. Or to the cheap gas station across town. Marie dug through her purse until she found a handful of change and a carefully folded $20 bill. She made a mental note to replace the bill that she kept tucked away for emergencies.
Marie grimaced to herself as she carefully navigated the rush hour traffic. Between rain and the windshield wipers and the people driving like nutcases, she wanted to scream. Switching her blinker on, she started to turn into the gas station and slammed on her brakes as a man stumbled pass, hunched under a fraying blue tarp and carrying a cardboard sign asking for gas money to get home, or food, or even a simple smile.
“Jeesh,” she muttered under her breath. “Watch where you’re going, bud, or it won’t matter if you’re homeless.”
A flush of shame rushed over her body, and she caught her breath suddenly, feeling a stab of remorse at her callousness.
“I want to do social work, I want to help people – how can I do that if I can only find fault?” Marie pulled the rest of the way into the gas station, parked and turned off the ignition. She bowed her head against the steering wheel and felt like crying.
“I’m tired,” she thought to herself. “I’m just plain tired. I work full-time, go to school full-time, do my homework, and still work at my practicum. I’m tired and grumpy.” A quiet little voice nudged her, and she sighed. “And I don’t like homeless people. I don’t like the way they smell. I don’t like their neediness. They always have their hand out. My folks were flat broke all the time, but we never asked for a hand-out.”
“Your parents had a home that was paid for – they just needed to take care of the taxes and maintenance.”
“And the food, clothes, medical, car . . . “
Marie shuddered, thinking back to the hand-me down polyester slacks and skirts she and her siblings traded back and forth. And remembered how Sunday dinner was so special with pot roast or chicken. Meat was a once a week occurrence and her mother knew how to make the bones and leftovers stretch so that soups and casseroles at least gave a hint of meat.
“Stop arguing with yourself,” she berated herself and got out of the care and headed for the cashier to prepay. The man she had slammed on her brakes for was sitting as far under the overhang as possible, his fraying tarp wrapped around him, his placard braced against his knees. He looked at Marie as she walked past, and grinned cheerfully.
“Lovely wet day, ain’t it, ma’am?” he nodded his head to her and she managed a half smile and non-committal grunt as she went through the doors. She paused on the threshold, looking around, and then straightening her shoulders she marched back outside and went straight to the man and looked him squarely in the eyes. She nodded towards his placard. “Hungry?”
Smiling, he nodded his head in response.
“C’mon in and let’s get you something hot to drink and warm to eat,” Marie said, stepping back a pace.
The man unfolded his tall, lanky body and when he was fully upright Marie had to crane her neck to meet his eyes.
“I’m Chuck,” he said, in a shy tone Marie was used to hearing in children but not full-grown men. “Marie,” she responded, and after a slight hesitation held out her hand to the man, and shook his hand firmly. Together, they walked towards the doors, but the man hesitated at the door and his brow furrowed.
“What’s wrong?” Marie asked, opening the door and ushering him inside. The cashier scowled blackly at them as they entered and Marie gazed coolly back at the red-cheeked plump man behind the counter before craning her neck to look at the man next to her. “Well?” she prompted.
Quietly, the man mumbled, “They don’t want me in here.”
“You’re with me, it’s fine,” Marie retorted before she thought about how that might sound to the man standing next her. Flushing with shame again, Marie gestured the man to the hot food and coffee display. “What would you like?”
When he reached for a candy bar, Marie took the bit by both hands and asked quietly, “When was your last meal?” When he didn’t respond, she gently took his arm and led him to the hot food section. “Really, please, choose some warm food. The candy bar is fine, too, but let’s get you some real food, too. And how about some coffee?” she added, turning to the coffee machines.
A genuinely sweet smile lit the man’s face up and he gingerly took out a burrito while Marie made a cup of coffee. “Cream? Sugar?” he smiled yes and clutching the candy bar and burrito followed Marie up to the counter.
“We both need gas,” she told the cashier as he suspiciously gazed at the man standing next to Marie. She put down the $20 and the collection of quarters and dimes. “Split the rest after the food for that pump, please.”
The man looked at her curiously. “Your sign says you need gas money to get home. Where is home?” Marie figured she’d hear a whopper, but the man had a clear destination and family he was trying to get home to. Taking a bite from his burrito, Chuck grinned at her and held out the candy bar to Marie. “Eat with me?” he asked.
“Oh no,” Marie said, “that’s for you!”
“Please,” he said, and nudged her with the candy bar. Marie shrugged and unwrapped the candy bar and took a section of it and popped it into her mouth, handing the rest back to the man who had shoved the remainder of his burrito in his mouth. Setting his coffee carefully on the newspaper vending machine next to him, he carefully wrapped the rest of the candy bar and stuck it in his coat pocket. Then he dug in his pocket and held out a golden colored coin.
Marie looked at the coin and then at Chuck curiously.
“Do you think this is worth anything?” he asked her, still holding it out. Marie picked it gingerly up and squinted. “Looks like it’s a Sacajawea coin – worth a $1.00,” she replied. “I haven’t seen one of those in a long time,” she smiled up at Chuck.
“It’s yours,” he said. “I help pay!” he insisted.
“You don’t have to,” Marie started to put the coin back in the man’s hand and he shook his head and dropped it into her hand again. “I help,” he insisted and they walked out the door to pump gas together.
Marie looked for Chuck for weeks after to see if he was still at that gas station or another corner in town frequented by people holding their hands out. She held on to that golden coin and remembered that pride came in many packages, no matter how much or how little a person had . . .