He slipped in sideways between the closing elevator doors, as if he were late to a meeting; he pressed the "5" without looking. But it was evening, and baggy pants and faded navy hung on his tall, slim frame…and his stealth entry stiffened the hairs on the back of my neck.
The corner of my eye had noticed him a few seconds earlier, just after we had parted a sea of clamorous teens. He was smiling, grandfatherly, standing maybe 30 feet away where the electric shuttle picks up. Later I would remember thinking he must work for the bus company, which, had I given any thought to, wouldn't have made sense because it's free and there are no employees to help with boarding.
I had no idea he was watching us, studying us, predator patiently awaiting his next prey.
The four of us were sealed in a four- by six-foot metal tomb. Tomb–that thought really scampered across my mind. I wondered if he had a knife in his pocket. I wanted to protect my son. Fight or flight pumped adrenaline but there was no where to run.
Extreme and ridiculous, these thoughts – and more – flashed through my mind in nano seconds. The Stranger began speaking.
"Yessir, I see you're a family man with your wife and your son here…" and he nodded in my and Stephen's direction.
"…you see I'm homeless and all I've got…" and on queue, he reached into his left pocket and pulled out two cents, two old pennies blackened with age. Two cents to his name? I thought and it was all too contrived, too practiced, and I didn't believe a word he was saying.
It was then I smelled it ~ the small space lent itself to that ~ and I doubted my doubt. His breath.
It wasn't the scent of alcohol. His eyes weren't red and his voice didn't waver; his wizened face matched his graying hair.
His breath was morning's, zoo breath, the pet name I'd given to the scent inhaled when kissing my children awake when they were little.
He needed to brush his teeth. I wondered how long it had been since he brushed his teeth.
The elevator door opened and I handed him my leftover pizza as Stephen and I brushed past him, which was almost funny because minutes before I had told my husband if he ate it before I had a chance, I'd cut him (What can I say? Mellow Mushroom is my favorite). Tad pulled out his wallet and gave him a bill and the Stranger thanked and God blessed him.
The elevator door closed behind us. Conflicted, I was relieved.
We got in the car and blurted first thoughts–
"I didn't believe a word he said," mine.
"That made me nervous," my son's.
"I wonder if he'll really eat the pizza," my husband.
In the quiet, we wondered many more thoughts, processing those few minutes, wondering what IS the right thing to do.
And at the end of the day, this is what I conclude–
It doesn't matter whether or not his story is true;
for an old man to resort to begging strangers for money, he has to be some kind of desperate. The money my husband gave him will never be missed. It was a reminder that we've been entrusted with much and given much. Materially, yes, but more so spiritually. Loved, chosen, forgiven, redeemed, graced, lavished–every spiritual blessing.
E v e r y.
There's a part of me that wishes I would have been brave enough to ask the man his story, made sure he knew he was loved…and bought him a tooth brush.
But this morning it occurred to me he could have been an angel. Which tells me generosity, kindness and hospitality is always the right response; because then it's not about you or the stranger or the circumstance, it's about a simple, God-glorifying response.
Did we entertain an angel last night? We'll never know.
But it wouldn't be the first time the Breath of Heaven smelled like a zoo.
: : : : : : : : : : : : : :
Linked at the Extraordinary Ordinary, because I just wrote :). Go…visit…lots of great writing over there.
Beautiful, Robin. Thank you for this reminder.
I have those same thoughts every time I see someone like that man. 50% of me wants to run as far as I can go, but that over 50% of me cries out to help him. I never know which 1/2 to go with.
I will not soon forget that last line, ” . . . the breath of Heaven smelled like a zoo.” Classic.
One of my dear friends made a similar remark on Facebook about that line. And the thing is, I wrote the entire post quickly–very rare for me!–but I could not bring it to a close. I bet I thought about the last line almost as long as the rest of the post. But when it came to mind? I knew I was done.
Soooo, THANK YOU for making mention of it. I loved writing this out and hearing your response to something that didn't come easily was a sweet blessing :). xo
This is a story we can all relate to, Robin. What I liked the most is your conclusion: it does not matter the story, made-up or truly lived, that is not up to us. Our responsibility is to respond in love, in generosity, in compassion. Thank you.
Poignant – from the heart – thank you for such thought provoking insight
What a wonderful Advent Sunday read – thank you so much. And yes, the last line will stick with me a while. Glad you came to it (or it came to you?). Such a dilemma – but a good reminder that we never know when we’ll be meeting one of God’s messengers, do we?
Hmmmmm…. I never thought about an angel.
I’ve always feared giving money that would buy drugs/booze. My brother would say “Come on, lets’ go to Mcdonalds and I’ll buy you lunch.” And he would.
I don’t know how many have turned him down.
Me? I’m afraid my angel would write down that I was not nice. I try not to make eye contact when I stop at the rest stop between Kar’s and Amanda’s. There is ALWAYS a panhandler there. I think there is a group that set up on the freeway – and because of the time limit- they move back and forth between them.
Here is where I say I should pray and praise so that I will have discernment to know when God instructs me to reach out. Whew….
Oh my, this is stunning.
“Generosity, kindness, and hospitality is always the answer”- beautiful.
this gave me goosebumps for so many reasons.
What a great potential and career you have. I’ve read some of your post here. And I am impressed with your knowledge and ideas. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.. 🙂