On the corner of Valencia and Alvernon, on a 72 degree Tucson, Arizona winter’s day, stood a familiar sight; the scruffy looking man holding a cardboard sign. The poor soul wasn’t standing on the corner, exactly; he was pacing the median to my left as I was approaching the stoplight, waiting to make a turn in that direction.
A month previous, my daughter and I were exiting a shopping center and drove by a forlorn-looking gentleman clutching that infamous cardboard. As we passed, I made no eye contact, and I realized my daughter has learned to do the same. It occurred to me that she’s never seen me be charitable to a homeless person on the street. She missed those days. The days when I was younger and less cynical. The days when I lived in a city and I spared my change. That fact, combined with it being Christmas time, was enough to get me to drive a circle – through two traffic lights, and holiday shopping parking lots – just to give the four dollars cash I had on hand to the middle-aged man with the sign.
I’m aware of the idea/myth/possible reality that many homeless persons with “Will work for food.”, “Children starving, please help.”, “Hungry veteran. This is humiliating.” signs are just duplicitously playing on your sympathies and, in fact, make more in a day on the freeway exit ramp than you do all week. But I’ve never been quite sure how much of that is true or how much of that is something we tell ourselves so we don’t have to feel bad – or, worse, make eye contact.
So, as I sat in the left turn lane, at the corner of Valencia and Alvernon, with my two children in the backseat, the man with sign approached my window and I stared stoically ahead at a light that could not turn green fast enough. He was the most aggressive panhandler I’d ever known. The minute we stopped he rushed my window, practically pasting his sign on my driver’s side glass. So aggressive that I was compelled to turn my head and read it.
It said, “Smile.”
With a little smiley face beneath the single word. And I did. I smiled. More accurately, I smirked – in the caught-off-guard, “Ah, you got me good” way. And I made my left turn with all sorts of philosophical thoughts about the wackiness of the world. But I think I smiled most at the thought, “Hipster or homeless?”