Nine Dollars’ Worth of Kindness

This afternoon as I was leaving work – jaywalking in order to reach the busstop on time – a man approached me.  Well, he didn’t exactly approach.  As I passed him on the sidewalk, he told me that I looked “pretty.” He didn’t seem threatening or demeaning, and seemed sincere in his statement, so I took the compliment. As I was walking away, toward the door that would lead me through the main corridor to my bus that was soon to arrive, I heard, “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”

I have worked downtown for years, and I have heard “Can I ask you a question” a thousand times. But as I paused to consider whether to answer, I realized that I still had my work badge hanging from my clothing, so I thought that I had better oblige, whether or not I had time to do so.

I turned to address the question asker. He was an African American man, older and shorter than I, wearing modest but clean clothes, and with a backpack slung over his shoulder. He explained that he was visiting the Women’s and Infant’s Center with his wife and child, and they couldn’t get anything to eat. He said that they had asked the social worker, but she hadn’t answered; he wanted to know if there was anyone else I could ask so that they could get some food. He said that he was on his way to the VA hospital, and just needed some help. He told me that all he had with him was a toothbruth, and some various items.  He paused, and then opened his backpack, and recounted the items he had just told me he had with him, and I could see that that was, in fact, all he had with him. I paused for a moment and thought about whether I had anything to give him.

I told him to hang on a second while I searched my wallet.

I had nine dollars in cash, and I gave it to him. He shook my hand and thanked me very sincerely.

I know that he may have been handing me a line. He may have gone straight to the liquor store or to his drug dealer and spent that $9 post-haste. But he may have gone straight to the nearest food establishment and bought a meager meal for his family.

I am not concerned about what he did with that money. If you want to know why, it’s because I can easily come by another $9. It’s not that I give money out to every stranger I come across, because that would easily get out of hand; it’s just that even if this guy was being untruthful, at least he put some effort into it. He asked for help. He didn’t ask for money, he asked for advice, and then he asked for help. I don’t know where the $9 went, but I’m sure it went for something he needed, whether it was for food for his wife and child, or booze, or drugs. He needed it, or he wouldn’t have bothered to ask.

He made me think of all the times I have not asked for help because I was too proud. I needed friendship. I needed a shoulder to cry on. I needed encouragement. I needed a ride. I needed a job. I have even needed nine dollars. I needed kindness, grace, and understanding.

My lesson for the day was to be kind, because the kindness of a stranger is sometimes the only grace that other person will ever feel.

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