Encounters With a Picky Hobo

Dear Reader,   

      I know that “Hobo” is not a politically correct term. I assure you that I am very precise about my word choice. After visiting an insightful Wikipedia page on the etymology of this word, I discovered very little is known about its origins or denotation. The best definition for “Hobo” is a nomadic or homeless worker. That is exactly the meaning I was looking for, and so I make no apologies

     Picture a young woman driving a well-used but reliable car which she owns outright. She is on her way to pick up a friend who she intends to drop off on the way to her dance class. She is late and manically eating wheat thins out of the box in an attempt to calm her nerves and get a little energy boost before her workout.

      That’s me, shoving crackers into my mouth and worrying about the scathing looks the teenage girls at dance class will give me when I show up late. They are all tiny, at least 6 years younger than me, and have about twice that many years of dance experience. As their undeveloped little bodies float through the choreography, my untrained limbs make it look like I am knuckle-walking across the floor with the purpose of imitating an orangutan. But I digress.

     As I drive through town, I pass a very skinny woman in her 50’s sitting on a worn black suitcase with a sign in her hands that reads, “Need Food”. It looks exactly like that. Only the first letters are capitalized. I am struck by the fact that there is nothing urgent about either the sign or this woman’s posture. She looks patient and relaxed, even bored.

     At this point a LOT of thoughts run through my head in that incredibly fast, almost simultaneous way that thoughts can. If I had to write it down it would probably look something like…

     “should I help… no I don’t have. food? yeah i do but does she want it aaaand i’m still late and this is the long way back what will my friend think when we drive back by but i should do it anyway whatifsheisgonebythen this isnt evenreallymyfoodandimnotevenhungry I SHOULD DO IT!”

     Nothing ever gets capitalized in my brain, unless it’s a loud thought, which is really a shame. You would think public school would have had a better effect. But the final revelation is that I can sacrifice being late and judged by a bunch of 14-year-olds for the sake of sharing a little food.

      So I pick up my friend and drive back towards town, taking the long route to dance class. As I pull up to this woman, I roll down the window and begin to apologize for having already eaten some of the wheat thins. Before 10 words are out of my mouth she says,

     “Oh no, I can’t have anything like that. No, no that won’t do atall.”

     And she says it just like that. Not “at all”, but “atall”, as if it were one word. A little embarrassed, I proffer the untouched apple I have with me, and again she declines. She doesn’t explain why, but I suspect it’s because, up close now, I can see she doesn’t have many teeth. So finally I try to give her the half-gallon of water I keep in my car for emergency’s. She takes one look at that Walmart-brand “Spring Water” (Walmart’s description, not mine) and becomes indigant.

     “Oh no! That is the worst! That is like poison.”

      “Really,” I say incredulously?

      “Yes, that plastic will kill you, it is the worst kind of water for you. Next time, buy Dasani because they are the only brand with safe plastic. You should just throw that out and find a clean water source.”

     I think my mouth may be hanging open for this last part. A clean water source? She makes it seem like I’m drinking straight from the Nile where dead animal carcasses float amongst the crocodile poo. I blush and apologize for not having anything else to offer her. She agrees that it is unfortunate and then dismisses me. My friend and I sit in silence as I wait to pull back onto the road. We are both speechless.

     Pretty soon we’re laughing at the irony of this woman who, for lack of a better term, is begging for food on the side of the road yet turns away food and water according to her taste. I wonder if her refusing my crackers had less to do with her ability to eat them and more to do with her distaste for enriched flour.

     But I keep thinking about this woman, and about my arrogance and pride and vanity at thinking she should take whatever I have to offer and be grateful while I ride the little high one gets from such miniscule sacrifices. Now, as I write this, I am grateful to her. The moment I decided I was going to help her, I was excited. I jumped at an opportunity to elevate my own sense of self through the degradation of another. I felt my bad intentions under the surface of an otherwise good act, but I ignored them.

     God has a sense of humor. If throwing the Big Guy into the mix upsets you, all I can say is that he and I happen to be close, and I believe in his mercy, grace, and good humor above all else. If you are also friends with God, I am happy to hear it. If you aren’t, I hope you would no more fault me for my belief than I would fault you for your disbelief.

     But when I get out of line and prepare to pat myself on the back for doing something that should be a no brainer, that’s when the greatest prankster of all time turns the tables on me.  I attribute this to a greater design for my life, but you don’t have to believe in God to experience the old adage, “pride comes before the fall”.

     I am grateful to that woman because she taught me something about pride. She gave me more to consider than the dangerous kind of pride that tosses us into the air without leaving a cushion for the trip back down. I privately wonder if under the shallowest surface of the need she was claiming, there was a deeper need for human dignity. Dignity is such a hard thing to recover. I have yet to see anyone standing on a street corner with a sign asking for someone to restore that dignity which poverty, sickness, hunger, or neglect have stolen from them. But this woman was not begging for something she considered more valuable than choice. Choice fed her sense of control in a situation where choice is often replaced by necessity. I don’t put the same kind of restrictions on my diet or drinking water that she does, but I won’t judge her for making choices no matter how great I think her need is.

That is all.


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