When I am on my way almost anywhere I pass the intersection of Columbus Boulevard and Washington Avenue and there, at any time of day or night I am reminded of the want and need that is present and visible in my city. About three years ago the corner was occupied by a couple who was there mostly in shifts. I haven’t seen them in a while, perhaps they have found work, or moved to a less competitive corner, as this one has become flooded with competition for sympathy and kindness.
When it was just them and I saw then daily I was sympathetic; I had recently lost a job, and was figuring out how to manage. I needed to be attentive and careful about my spending but I never worried about my ability to feed and clothe my child. According to their hand-written signs these two were much less fortunate. I gave them money whenever I felt I could, enough to buy a meal for themselves and their children (real or fictitious). The proof of their circumstances was seeing them grow gaunter daily.
Over the years that particular intersection has been inundated with more and more people asking drivers for a hand out. Every day there are more. They seem to work the area in shifts. Some are clearly mentally ill, one scares me, and one is someone I know. I’m sure different circumstances have brought them all to this intersection, and I find myself wondering what those circumstances were.
One of these people is a young woman who appears to be in her early twenties. She isn’t there every day, but she looks like you would expect; dirty and scruffy and like she is surviving on a diet of soda, coffee and junk from the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. Her gaze is level and clear, she seems uncomfortable asking for money.
I’ve had the thought more than once that I could offer her a place to sleep and take a shower. I could offer her a washing machine to clean her clothes. There is no need for you to try to talk me out of this impulse; I won’t act on it. Their need overwhelms me; their situation and the unlikeliness that it will change. The money I can offer isn’t enough to make a difference, and as their numbers grow I find myself better at ignoring them, or occupying myself so they pass me by. I see the man I know and maneuver around him, hoping he won’t approach me.
A few months ago he was doing some work for my next door neighbor, Jeff, and he asked if he could do some work for me. I said he could, but he did a lousy job, and the price he quoted me went up more than once for a small job, leaving me feeling annoyed and resentful. While he was still working for Jeff he asked if he could borrow some money until Jeff paid him. I never got that money back.
When I mentioned to Jeff that I’d seen him begging nearby, Jeff said he was a crack addict, now living under the I-95 overpass with other addicts. Jeff warned me to call the police if he came around our houses. When I first saw him I wanted to ask for my money back. Did he think I was rich? Do I seem like money is nothing to me? What did it matter to him that I worked hard to manage my own life, and money? I feel a mix of righteous indignation and shame.
I have enough; a job, a roof over my head and a shower daily. I’m not rich, but compared to him, compared to the people who spend their days or nights at that intersection I am wealthy indeed. It’s easy to forget as I balance my checkbook and hope I’ll make it to September when I get three paychecks, and rent out my own bedroom for two nights because I need the money, that I am better off than most of the world’s population.
The corner of want and need exists in every city and town. Mine is nearby and visible, but many aren’t. There are kids who wait all weekend until Monday when they get to school and have food to eat. There are the invisible people who are too ashamed to ask for help. I hope the couple who were the first to wander that intersection found a home. My wish is they found a way to move to the corner of safety and security. I pray they never need to return to the corner of want and need and I know this isn’t likely.