A few nights ago I was having dinner with some friends when a panhandler approached our tables. It was raining. His hair was wet, white and sparse. He held his paper cup close to his chest but shook it a little. He said nothing.
I remembered a mother and a child who approached me and some friends over lunch some time ago. I gave them some money and my friend’s dad was unhappy. He said I was the reason they were begging. He said that they could find a job if they really wanted, but they were lazy. He said I should never give them money and encourage them to remain poor and lazy. I don’t remember saying anything after that.
So I stared at him. He came to my side. I don’t know what’s right or wrong, proper or inappropriate, but i took out my wallet. My friend who was sitting next to me said under his breath, “Sucker.” He took out his wallet as well. “Suckers,” I corrected him. When we dropped some money into his paper cup, the three of us smiled. Me, my friend and the old man. He still did not say a thing except bow and clasp his hands together to show thanks. He did it many times. He then went around our tables to shake our hands, even those who ignored him.
As he was walking away to another table, something in me wanted to know if there’s more. More to what, I don’t know. But I asked my friend if it’ll be fine if he joined us for dinner. My friend said yes. So we invited him to sit with us. If there’s something you need to know about Chinese dinners is that food is communal. The same spoon you drink your soup with will be the same spoon you use for any other dish. Saliva and Hepatitis. Mmmm.
As he was eating, he was also gesturing how much each dish would cost and the price of the dinner. He wrote on the table with his finger. He was pretty good at math. I was moved when I saw my friends mounting food on his bowl like he was our grandpa and we were his grandchildren. Very lovingly and respectfully.
He finished his meal and got up to thank us again. One by one, he shook our hands. Instead of begging at another table for more money, he walked off. All he wanted was money to buy food, I suppose. I don’t know why he chose to panhandle or if he had any choice, but I do know that he was full when we looked at him, fed him and acknowledged the dignity we failed to see in him at first impression. As a man, as a person and as a human being.
Some people say that beggars are shameless. It’s true and I want to embrace that. I don’t deserve so much of what I have right now and I don’t really own anything. Breath itself is a gift. I want to have my hands open, waiting to receive than fold them tightly over my chest, thinking I’m too good or great or noble to humble myself to be like a child pauper.