We were just north of Kansas City. It was mid afternoon, and we hadn’t eaten yet. I spotted a Steak and Shake to the left, so we pulled off of the freeway. Traffic was heavy, and the stoplight turned red at the top of the hill, just before we were to turn left. As cars backed up behind us, we noticed the man in the green army fatigue jacket holding the cardboard sign that said “U.S. Veteran with Family Needs Help”. I put him to be in his mid fifties; he was thin and had fading reddish hair. He was clean shaven, and he kneeled near the stop light. He did not approach us or any of the other cars.
Knowing I had a fresh five dollar bill in my wallet, my Sister and I had the usual discussion about whether he was legit or just one of the many rip-off artists you hear so much about. Meanwhile, in my mind, the would-be writer in me immediately tried to construct stories about how this man ended up in this place. Tragic stories of real loss and anguish were balanced by devious and cynical con jobs. It struck me that either angle I took would be a good vehicle for exploring the theme that life is, among other things, an on-going assault on individual dignity.
If he was in fact a con, if he was merely too lazy to get a job, then he certainly wasn’t worthy of any of my money, and anything I gave him would just be perpetuating a lie. Besides, there are shelters and mechanisms provided by our government and private faith based initiatives that are in place for people with exactly these issues.
If he really was the victim of tragic circumstance and fate, if he and his family really were hurting and hungry, if he had exhausted all other means and standing at that corner with his hand out was his only option, then it would be my obligation to help him. Maybe my five dollars would somehow be enough to prevent his family from going hungry for the night, or enable them to sleep with a roof over their heads.
The light wasn’t going to stay red forever. There was no time to do a background check, or to interview him to conclude if he was worthy or not. I’d have to determine quickly what to do, whether this man was worthy of my five dollars or not.
Either way, at least I’d have some fresh material to write about.