It’s a cold, sunny November day in San Francisco, and I’m walking up Fillmore Street near Japantown. I don’t live in the city, but I enjoy coming in for the day from my little place in the oak-covered hills to the north. I’ve already indulged in a fine latte at a tiny French café, sitting at a table in the sun reading the New York Times and feeling comfortably and exquisitely urbane. Now I’m near the Duxiana store, which sells high-end luxury mattresses, and I notice an older man sitting on an overturned bucket by the corner. He’s wearing a gray canvas smock and he’s holding an empty soup can carelessly in his right hand. He’s looking across the street, as if he’s just resting there on his bucket, resting rather than begging. I walk by him and up to the gorgeous windows of Duxiana, and then I remember my tax.
I used to live in the country in the Pacific Northwest. Every few months I’d drive to Seattle, and invariably, as I came down the off-ramp from the freeway I would see a person at the corner near the first traffic light, usually holding a hand-lettered cardboard sign: “Need food or a job,” “Please help,” “Mother and two children,” ”Veteran.” I would roll down the window and hand a few coins or a dollar or two to whoever was on the corner that day. I began to think of this as my “city tax.” I was coming to Seattle to enjoy the city for the day; the least I could do was hand a few coins to someone willing to stand on a busy off-ramp in the ceaseless drizzle.
I know and understand the arguments against handing money to homeless people. But I tend to see asking for money on the street as a very difficult, very poorly paid job, one that I – and most people I know - would be utterly unwilling to do. I can’t imagine standing on the street for hours at a time on sore feet, begging for help, ignored, sometimes cold or wet or both, all for a little bit of cash, perhaps barely enough to buy a warm cup of coffee.
So I’m standing by the Duxiana windows, looking in at the beds as soft as clouds, and I remember all this. I turn and walk back to the man with his bucket and empty soup can, and I drop a little money in the can. He’s surprised. Without thinking, I also touch his hand and wish him well. He, in turn, looks me in the eyes and says, “Bless you, bless you.” And I feel blessed. Thoroughly and genuinely blessed and warmed and touched, like a sudden shaft of sunlight on a dark day.
This is what I’ve found, from these many years of giving money to people on the street - men and women with their shopping carts in big cities like Washington D.C. or New York or San Francisco, homeless pierced teenagers in small towns, old ladies dressed in black on the steps of churches in Mexico, gypsies playing accordions in Italy or in Greece - the response, nearly every time, from every sort of person in every language, is “Bless you,” or “God bless you.”
This is the most wondrous and mysterious thing to me. I hand fifty cents to a stranger and they bless me, like an ancient ceremony, like the kiss on the head by a wise man or woman. I never expect the blessing – why should they bless me from their cold street corner, comfortable and secure and oblivious as I am? And yet, when the blessing appears, I understand again that this is what they have to offer. When you have nothing, what can you offer but your blessing? And perhaps, when you have nothing, when you find yourself begging for food or change while others walk by you on the way to warm restaurants and cafes, your blessing is a gift far beyond what even you yourself can know.
All I know is that it feels like more than a fair exchange. Fifty cents in my pocket will buy me very little happiness; a blessing, a real blessing, and that glance into each others’ eyes, is beyond price.