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.

2 thoughts on “Vulture

    • Sorry, but I am going to give a long winded answer to your straight forward question.

      There is a lot of controversy and vitriol these days as the hard times we are going thru become increasingly politicized. Everybody sees people like this thru ideological lenses, as either free loaders dragging down the working folks or as victims of social injustice. The man is an easy target and symbol for those who want to score cheap political points from either side.

      Even worse are those would-be writers like myself or artists who see the man as material. It’d be easy to say I gave the man the five dollars, and pat myself on the back for my saintliness, or to say I didn’t give the money and congratulate myself for not giving in to the unacceptable behavior of begging and mooching off of others. My first impulse was to write one of these stories, when I realized that whatever story I was writing would be about me and how wonderful or clever I am, and not the guy holding the sign. Once I realized this, I thought, since the story is about me anyways, I may as well be at least somewhat honest – that I was, in fact, dehumanizing the man and using him and his plight as material for my silly little drivel. He may as well have been road kill to my vulture. While I am not vain enough to call myself any sort of artist, this seems to be one of the great conflicts of art – the relationship of artist to subject, and the thin line between inspiration and exploitation.

      To further highlight my shallowness, note that my encounter with the man is from the comfort of my car’s front seat, while I am en route to the nearby Steak and Shake.

      So what happened next is this: whether I gave him my five bucks or not really isn’t that important, as soon I was on my merry way, and I slept that night with a full belly and a roof over my head. Only when we get past ourselves and recognize each other as human beings, with all our inherent complexities and psychology and history, will it matter whether I gave the man five dollars or not.

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