Thursday, January 11, 2007

I'll Buy That For A Dollar

In many parts of the world it's unusual to travel for long without somebody begging money, but in the United States this typically occurs only in certain metropolitan areas. Over the last few months, however, I’ve been approached for a handout several times in local parking lots. There is a “rooms by the week” hotel near a local grocery store, and I regularly find myself being panhandled by someone who has obviously been ground down to a stub by alcohol, crack, meth or some other addiction. It’s during these times I try to remember the Four Questions.

I don’t remember where I learned to ask these questions, although I think it came out of an article I read some years back in the Friends Journal, a Quaker publication. They constitute a brief, convivial line of inquiry I ask a person who wants a handout. The questions are: “What's your name?” “What do you love?” “What advice can you give me?” “Is there anything you want to ask me?”

The idea behind all this is that asking a stranger for money is an act that invariably demands a sacrifice of human dignity. These questions turn an almost faceless, emotionless encounter into a potentially rich transaction of dreams, values and appreciation between two people.

I was a little scared when I first asked these questions to a man who asked for money on a downtown Atlanta sidewalk on my way to traffic court to fight a ticket. I worried that he might think I was up to some scheme or opportunity to moralize. That was the first benefit I noticed about these questions: they allowed me to be self-conscious about what a homeless person thought of me.

I generally come right out and clearly say I will be glad to give the person a buck or two in exchange for me getting to ask them four questions. Nobody yet has turned me down, and I like to think it's not just because they want the money. I imagine it's rare that anyone asks their opinion about anything and that they are intrigued by the prospect.

I generally say my first name and ask to know who I'm talking to. Sometimes we shake hands although I generally don't like to do that. This is not a class thing: I don't shake hands with anybody unless social conventions force me to. (Call it O.C.D. if you want, but not only is it the primary way colds are spread but as a guy I know how few men wash their hands after they pee.)

The question "what do you love" yields a wide range of answers. Sometimes it's a child, a parent or even a spouse. (I tend to discount that the homeless, the mentally ill or the drug addicted can be married too.) Every so often it's sex, or something like apple pie. Many, many times it's God or Jesus.

What I've found surprising is that the answers to "what advice can you give me?" are generally both spiritual and practical in nature. "Trust God and maybe He'll trust you." "Be thankful every day." "Do the right thing even when you don't want to." "Slow down, don't move too fast." I often sense the person is really looking into me, and for a moment it's not a smelly bum talking to me but wisdom itself.

I've amended the final question, "what do you want to ask me?", to include "except for more money." Sometimes it's "nothing". Other times the person will ask why I'm doing this, and my answer that "it helps us both" generally seems satisfying. A nearly toothless man in one of Savannah's beautiful historic parks, while holding a hand full of bread crumbs, asked me what he should do about all the Wiccans who kept harrassing him. He nodded and smiled when I encouraged him to keep telling them to stay out of both his head and his park.

Immediately after that I hand over whatever I'm going to give and then we're both on our way to the next encounter in our lives. Usually we both call each other by name as we part. The whole interaction takes about a minute, sometimes two, and many times in my life I've wasted a lot more to get back a lot less in return, so I invariably feel it was time and money well spent.

I've wondered if this is something I only feel comfortable doing as a man, especially since I'm tall and not easily intimidated. I think I'd feel uneasy if my wife engaged in the same ritual. There are so many things we can only do because of the specific circumstances of our lives. Still, we are all capable of coming upon our unique ways to connect with another human in a mutually respectful and meaningful manner, and when we do so I think the entire world benefits.

I'll buy that for a dollar.

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