Alms for the Poor

“Children, even infants, are capable of sympathy. But only after adolescence are we capable of compassion.”
~ Louise J. Kaplan

I saw a man two Tuesdays ago holding a piece of cardboard with a hand written message on it. He was sitting at the intersection of Susquehanna Trail and Highway 30 for those in the area—for those outside, read as “a damn busy intersection.” Philly, Baltimore and Gettysburg can be reached by simply turning left or right at this intersection. It was a good place for him to be.

His sign said “Need ride to Virginia, been stuck here since Friday.”

While waiting for the red light I glanced at him, much like I glance at the rotating shift of men that stand at my exit to work every morning with signs like the one in the image. I’ve watched people hand business cards over, pass a water bottle out their windows, and have even given a couple bucks myself on occasion. But I don’t think of them after I’ve driven away usually.

This man was different.

I lit a cigarette while waiting for the light and he jumped up, making the hand motions of asking me for a light and I rolled the window down and offered my lighter. He said “Thank you so much,” with his eyes as much as his mouth, lit his cigarette and went back to the curb to sit and enjoy his nicotine. He was clean-cut with a tattoo peeking out of his button-up short sleeve shirt. His pants were crisp, his shoes were clean, his hair was neatly trimmed but he had about 3 days of scruff on his face. He didn’t seem to fit the bill for regularly seen men with signs sitting on curbs. He was different somehow. The light turned and I drove off… watching him as I passed and checking him once in the rearview mirror.

For the rest of my short trip to the White Rose to meet Susan for fishbowls before she left town, I thought about going back and grabbing him and making a roadtrip to Virginia. I thought about the safety issues and everything ever beaten into my head about picking up strangers. I heard my mother’s voice teasing me about wanting to go to Aruba “where all those women are disappearing.” I thought I could just ask for his driver’s license and text Bob the information so he’d know who I was with if I disappeared. But I wasn’t really worried about something happening to me. I was more concerned with what had happened to him. He was in the wrong state, and had been for about four days. Did he have a family worrying about him? Was he trying to get to a sick parent? What exactly was going on and how could I help.

I got to the White Rose before Susan—she had to feed the animals =) But when she got there, the first thing I did was tell her about the guy and ask if she was interested in a roadtrip to Virginia. We talked about it briefly, got sidetracked, got involved in other conversations which were more dire to the pre-plane meeting and forgot about him. Though I remembered a while later and told her I wondered if he was still there.

This was almost two weeks ago and I’m still thinking about this guy. I don’t know why. I have no clue and it’s bugging me. I told Bob and he wonders if I shouldn’t have helped him. Maybe the universe put him there for me and I screwed up by driving away. I’m all about watching for signs and paying attention when I see them. Although in the past year I’ve told the universe to kiss off a few times and tried to ignore it out of anger and spite and blame, but I’m getting back in the swing. Or so I thought.

Then Bob grinned and asked if I knew his story yet, alluding to the muse having a grip on him for some reason. I didn’t think it was a case of that. I didn’t have a story for him. Not yet anyway. Who knows, maybe he’ll show up a couple novels from now and surprise me. The muse has done weirder things to me… some illegal in most states.

I don’t know. I don’t know why this man is stuck in my head. It’s made me think of goodwill and compassion. Of other people I’ve helped. Of the charities I give to annually and the strangers I’ve handed cash to. It’s made think of society and why we don’t more readily help both our neighbors and strangers. It’s made me think of a lot of things.

Who knows. Maybe it was just one of those bizarre adventures I was suppose to take and learn his story on the car ride. God, I hope he’s not stuck in my head because I knew him and didn’t immediately (or any time since) recognize him. I hope, if it was the universe, it understands I’m still a bit bruised from the beating it gave me last year and gives me another shot at whatever this was suppose to be—adventure, understanding, muse fodder… growth. I hope a lot of things.

I hope he got to Virginia.

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