The old woman moved slowly into my peripheral vision as I dashed to the post office.
She wore mismatched clothes that looked like they’d come from the Goodwill: an oxford-cloth blouse, tucked into a faded, floral skirt, its elastic waist accentuating a belly that wore childbirth as a badge of life devoid of luxury.
From the comfort of my air-conditioned SUV, I watched her approach two women. The first looked up, then quickly rebuffed her, turning on her expensive looking heels. The second also evaded her. The old woman showed no emotion. Perhaps she was just numb.
Of course, I knew I was next. It took a nanosecond to debate my options: start the engine and escape – or open the door.
On that day, I chose to open my door.
“Ma’am, could you give me $20?” Pointing to an adjoining neighborhood she said, “I’m being evicted from my home. My belongings are going to be put in the yard tomorrow, unless I can come up with the money for a mover.”
Involuntarily, I gave a sigh. I thought. “Is her story true?” Of course, I had the option of following the other women’s leads, walking away from her problems.
Yet, as I’d watched her plea being rejected, her plight touched something in me. What would I lose if I did open my wallet? It was a $20 bet – the cost of a pizza one night I didn’t feel like cooking.
I looked into her tired, dark eyes and said “Sure. I don’t have much cash, but I’ll give you what I have.” I came up with $22 and wished her good luck. With a small “thank you” she began searching for other prospects. I walked into the post office wondering if I’d been “had.”
Once inside, I found my actions had been observed. My generosity was the subject of debate among the two women who had denied the old lady and a Postal Service clerk. One patron and the clerk commended me. The other woman was more skeptical. She’d seen the woman “working the other side of the shopping center” before. I defended my actions, yet walked into the warmth of the day feeling conflicted. Had I been the fool?”
I comforted myself with the knowledge that I might have helped someone in need and put her out of my mind, moving on with my comfortable life.
A month later, I was startled as I drove to the shopping plaza. A hurricane fence had gone up overnight, imprisoning a city block of houses. This was the area the old woman had pointed to as she had asked for money.
The next day the newspaper confirmed it: “UPSCALE CONDOMINIUM PROJECT APPROVED.”
Suddenly, I no longer felt had.
The word had the cold ring of expensive heels, clicking on pavement, walking purposefully away from a human being in need.
My values were confirmed. Every human being deserves compassion. This, I believe.
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