I exited from I-85 and slowed to a stop at the traffic light at the bottom of the exit ramp, waiting to turn left when the light would turn to green. When traffic began moving, I turned left behind a pickup truck in front of me that was pulling a white trailer. I needed to stop at the Walmart before going to my place. I needed to purchase some milk and a few other small items for the week. When the next light turned red, the cars and trucks in front of me slowed and stopped, and I did, too. Then I saw her.
I think we all saw her simultaneously. She appeared to be Hispanic. She wore black socks, sandals, psychedelic pajama pants, and a camisole beneath a baggy sweatshirt. She was by herself and was pacing up and down the concrete median dividing the highway that ran in front of the Walmart. She held a white poster board with black writing that said
Need money Homeless Money go for food
and room Thank You God Bless
As we drivers waited for the green arrow to turn left into the Walmart, the girl came to each driver’s side window and tried to make eye contact. She waved. She smiled. She held the sign for what seemed a very long time, right in front of the car windows, so we would read it. Then she’d wave again.
And the sadness of the whole thing, that lasted only ninety seconds or so, pierced me. Should I give her the petty cash and quarters I have in the cup holders between my front seats? Or should I not, because she may be being pimped by some scoundrel who is at this moment watching her from the nearby parking lot? Or is she completely honest—a girl standing in the middle of the highway in front of Walmart because she cannot otherwise make ends meet but by begging on a Sunday afternoon?
What did this all say about the world? That she was here? That the other drivers and I wrestled internally about whether or not to give? That we questioned the whole world we are in? We could give and say to ourselves, “Well, it’s up to her what she does with it.” Or we could avert our eyes so as not to have to articulate our reluctance to trust, to give. What did this whole rotten situation reveal about the world?
In one moment, signs of “Hiring: $20 per hour” were visible. Yet here was a girl in pajama pants in the highway begging for money. In whom is one to trust? It seemed to me only that things are broken. When trust is followed by a question mark in our hearts, that says much—that we’re our own enemies. Yet we turn to the same demographic for help. It’s what Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself.
I did not see any windows roll down in order for drivers to give the girl money. We all read the sign. We watched her walk up and down beside all of our vehicles. Then the arrow turned green on the light and we drove on up to the store, paid for our goods, and pulled out of the same parking lot, and watched her again, this time holding her sign with bad grammar, before the next line of cars.
I wanted to give, I wanted to say. But I know that my intentions did nothing for her. It is action that counts.
But I wanted to say, You will, perhaps, understand one day that things are complicated, that people can be both blessings and curses, that we feel the embarrassment and awkwardness, too. And that sometimes when we don’t know what to say, it comes out as “Thank you” and “God bless,” and we feel as empty and necessary as words.