I don’t usually give bums money, because I know they’ll just use it on drugs. I have such profound empathy for those experiencing drug addiction, and I would hate to enable such a vicious cycle. If anything, I’ll give a member of the unhoused community my leftovers from dinner. It’s the kind thing to do, and eco-friendly, too.
But I wasn’t thinking, and I gave him cash. The unhoused man outside the 7-11. I should first clarify that under typical circumstances, I would never go to a 7-11 (I don’t support big chains). But I was meeting my plug in the parking lot, so I compromised. One of many moral compromises I gave into that night.
His leather jacket, camo pants, and combat boots were almost chic. But he looked tired, and his clothing hung loosely to his frame, and not in an anorexic- model- off-duty way. It occurred to me that maybe his weathered look was not a stylistic choice, but rather an allusion to legitimate veteran status. I have profound respect for the heroes who fight so bravely for our country. Surely I had the patriotic duty to acknowledge a man’s fearless service with a buck fifty, cash. And here is where I abandoned all principle. My fatal flaw, if anything, is that I care too much.
First, I needed to gauge the legitimacy of his veteran status. To determine whether or not he earned his scars as a patriot or a bum. I would walk past him, but I would not engage. I would look his way and say nothing.
She approaches the 7-11. He stands by the entrance, but not close enough to be registered by the motion sensor of the automated doors. Her pace slows before entering the store. She looks toward him, and in doing so issues an invitation. Her brief glance is consent to engage.
“Darling, could you spare a dollar,” the man asks.
“Oh, I don’t have cash on me, but I’d be happy to buy you some food,” she offers.
He relents. “That’'s very thoughtful, but could you spare a dollar, sweetie? I almost have enough for a pack.”
I trade my dignity for a cigarette, feeding the bloated egos of the ostensibly “woke” upper classes in exchange for their spare change. I smile and address them as sir, if it’s a man, ma’am if it’s a woman, and darling if she’s pretty.
And the stench of my desperate pandering lingers. You can clean your hands of blood with warm water, but no amount of rubbing can get the smell of cigarettes off my fingertips. It’s easier to get away with murder than a smoke. The smell is a reminder of my will’s failure to intervene between desperation and a cigarette.
But desperation is not the fatal sin. It is simply the space between desire and its indulgence. But tonight I am not strong enough to bear it; I fold to the hunger, and this time not for cigarettes.
He takes her money, and with the change he had earned from earlier in the night, he goes into the store. He comes out of the 7-11 with a pack of cigarettes; it was blue and wrapped in plastic. She wouldn’t know the brand, she doesn’t smoke. He peels off the wrapper and opens the pack, reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a lighter.
He hands her a cigarette and issues a final request. “Can you do one last thing, sweetie.” She liked that he called her sweetie. “Could you smoke it for me, to keep the smell off my fingers?”
To keep his hands clear. No stench will taint his conscious tonight.