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The Gift




Voting Has Closed

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Foot on the brake, I take one hand off the wheel and make a fist, then slowly stretch out my fingers. I feel tension release inside. A few drops of rain tap on the windshield, the first beats of a coming downpour. Traffic is at a standstill. I’m waiting at the on-ramp to Highway 62, heading East. This scene is very familiar; it could have been any morning last month for me. The light turns green but the car ahead stalls. I fight back anger at the distracted driver ahead.

I swallow words I shouldn’t speak as I glance in the rearview mirror and see my daughter sitting in the third row and staring out the window. Feeling the tightness in my chest return, it dawns on me I’ll be late dropping her off. She’ll be crushed if she misses her first-grade recital. I tap my horn. The car ahead lurches forward and I feel vindicated

Then I see him, at the end of the on-ramp. I’m creeping forward very slowly, inching up the ramp. “Stay green,” I think out loud. Just let me get on the highway. Please let me get passed him. Do not make eye contact.

But before I get there the light changes and I’m stuck in line again. The rain picks up, staining the pavement. And he’s standing there, hunched over, cardboard sign in hand. This person looks homeless, in raged jeans and a torn flannel. One eye is glazed over. Unkempt beard and shoulder length hair. Does it matter what the signs says? I try to ignore the words. Some story, same story: lost home, lost job. Phony baloney; I give no benefit of the doubt. At the bottom of the bent and broken sign, scrawled in black sharpie ink, he offers a blessing. “God bless,” he signs off. I feel a tug of guilt, a tug of shame.

I pull out my wallet and shuffle through my cash, removing a few bills and making sure they are ones, carefully moving the higher denominations to the back. The cars start to move. I’m speeding up now and I’m afraid that the transaction won’t work. If I continue to accelerate the car will be going too fast for me to make an exchange. I reconsider what I am about to do. After all, it’s not too late to change course. There are plenty of beggars at intersections and freeway ramps across the metro. I’ll have another chance.

Then I do it. I press the button. The window glides down. I break. The beggar’s head jerks up. His eyes catch mine, locking me in a gaze, recognizing what I’m about to do. This is a routine for him. He walks toward me at a comfortable pace. As he shuffles down the shoulder, a line of cars forms behind me. Somewhere the sound of a horn makes quick staccato sounds. He is moving ridiculously slow.

“What are you doing?” My daughter, shaken out of a daydream, asks me as she is suddenly aware that something is happening.
“I’m giving that man a few dollars,” I say in a hurry hoping if I speak quickly enough she won’t have more questions.
“Who is he?” She asks.
“He is, uh, just a beggar.”
“What’s a beggar?”
“Oh that’s, uh, that’s someone who can’t get what he needs for himself and has to ask other people for help in public.”
“Were you ever a beggar?”
“No,” I said.
“Will I be a beggar?”
“We are blessed to be able to work and earn money and provide for ourselves,” I tell her. “We have enough so we can help other.”

He closes in and his arm stretches out toward my open window. I am aware of contact, a physical touch as he grabs the bill and our hands collide. Something about our hands touching surprised me.

He takes the money and quickly stashes it. Turning away he says, “God Bless You.” As he walks back, I take my hands off the wheel. Looking down, it’s as if the world stops spinning, dropping me momentarily into a sort of time gap. Suddenly I am aware of a gift. I have been given something, just by the act of giving. I have indeed been blessed, but not by the beggar. No magic here; my present is understanding.

And just as suddenly I get this desire to tell my daughter something. Unlike most of the time when I try to hide this world–our world–from her, I have the urge to speak and reveal to her a truth. The shame and the awkwardness I feel about this sea of concrete and glass and carbon collapses and all the fear I feel slides away.

“Really,” I blurt out, “It’s important to give to people who ask because, well, because it reminds of us how needy we were and really how needy we still are. In God’s eyes we are all beggars,” I continue. “We turn to him for help, and he gives it to us freely.”

The rain lets go in full force. The man with the sign shuffles off the ramp. Switching my wipers to high, I press the pedal down, my car accelerates and I feel thrilled to rejoin the rest of humanity as we hit the freeway.

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