I missed him at first. I guess I was reading my book and, besides, it was the subway, so people are coming and going all the time. Even people with accordions, and guitars. Not that he had any of those. What made me pay attention was a word he used.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a few bucks to give to an apartmentless man,” he said.
I looked up, and saw that the apartmentless man was a tall, blonde man, all dressed up in denim, holding an empty paper cup in his hand. I know it was empty because he shook it, and I heard nothing.
Now, I never know what to say to people begging for money. I know my instinct is to just keep reading my book, and hope to avoid making an eye contact, but then I feel bad. And I decide to become a better person.
Every time that happens, I think back at a trip to Canada when after a good dinner at a Vietnamese place, two of the people in my party – the two women holding the training session on environmental business – asked the waiter to wrap the food up, to go.
On our way back to the hotel, they gave the food to a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against one of the downtown buildings. He was so happy that he gave everybody a hug.
I once tried something similar in Helsinki. I saw a beggar on his knees at the intersection of Mannerheimintie and Bulevardi, and I saw one empty paper cup in front of him, and a coffee cup behind him. That, too, was empty. I went into the coffee shop in the corner, bought a cup of coffee, and gave it to the man. No hugs. He didn’t seem to appreciate it.
Of course, I wasn’t alone in the subway car, and a young man next across the aisle told the man to wait. He’d have something.
“That can’t be easy, being without an apartment,” he said, and stood up.
“No, it’s not, you know, it’s not like I like doing this.”
“I know, I had a buddy who was in the same situation,” said the young man, put his hand in his pocket, and reached for some cash. When he didn’t find anything, he looked dumbfounded.
“Wait, wait,” he told the man, and tried his other pocket.
“It’s OK,” said the tall, blonde homeless man. “It’s fine, I understand.”
“No, really, wait. I always have something,” said the man, and looked at his girlfriend who sat opposite to him. “Right?” he said, and she nodded.
While he turned his attention to his duffel bag on the seat next to him, I put my hand in my pocket to see if I had any coins there. Meanwhile, the young man rummaged through his bag, but finally he looked at the man, and smiled a little.
“I’m sorry. I usually always have something. A little cash. I’m sorry, man,” he said.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” said the homeless man, and looked at me.
I smiled a little.
“I’m sorry. I don’t have any money on me,” I said and pulled up my empty money clip for proof.
“It’s OK. I understand,” he said.
“I just have this … it’s made out of a fork,” I added.
“It’s nice,” said the man, nodded his head to the couple across the aisle, and walked to the next car.
When he had gone, the young man looked at me.
“I usually always have money on me, you know,” he said, still frustrated.
“Yeah. A bummer,” I said, and decided that the next time, so would I.