Recently my wife and I were in Atlanta, Georgia for a long weekend visit. After spending the day at the Georgia Aquarium, we were walking down Baker Street, holding hands as we usually do, and talking about where we might grab something to eat. It was a beautiful day, and we were just strolling along, not paying a huge amount of attention to the world around us.
As we walked past one of the benches that line the sidewalk, I saw in my peripheral vision an elderly black woman sitting there. I think I tried not to notice it, but out of the corner of my eye I caught that her head was down, and she seemed to be crying.
Ginger had noticed her too. My wife possess many admirable traits, and the list of reasons I married her would go on and on. But high on that list would be her compassionate heart. There was no way in hell she could walk past a woman alone on a bench crying, and not stop to see what was wrong, and if she could help in any way. No more than a fireman could walk past a burning building, or a doctor past someone having a heart attack. It was just who she is.
And so I was not surprised when Ginger abruptly stopped and turned around, swinging me in an arch to follow her as she went back to the bench we had just passed. I stood there awkwardly as Ginger knelt down and asked the woman what was wrong.
I try to think of myself as open minded. I try always not to judge others, and to remember that everyone is struggling one way or another. But I have also always had a healthy streak of skepticism when it comes to these things. It was a windy day, and there was a fair amount of traffic noise, so I could not hear much of what they were saying. I just stood there looking around and trying not to appear too awkward. As I stood looking around, I noticed that the coat the woman was wearing was wool, and too warm for this sunny afternoon in Atlanta. I also noticed her cart, with a small suitcase and a large plastic bag filled with something that might have been laundry, held on with two bright orange bungee cords. I realized she was a homeless woman.
My skepticism kicked in, as I was sure she was telling Ginger some sob story to get money from her. I was sure it was a scam. It just had to be, right?
Her name was Linda. She was from Detroit, and had traveled down to Atlanta with her sister. Apparently, the sister was in some legal trouble down here in Georgia, and Linda had convinced her to come down and face the music. Unfortunately, as soon as they arrived, the sister was arrested, and her car impounded, so now Linda had no sister and no money and no place to stay.
At least that was her story, and she was sticking to it.
She had been homeless in Atlanta for several weeks now, but her immediate need (she said) was that the local shelter charged $10 a night, and she didn’t have even that, so she was going to have to sleep in the park that night.
Ginger was immediately switching into case-worker mode, I could tell. Also on that list of reasons I love my wife is that she happens to be an LSW (Licensed Social Worker) and has a way of always thinking in terms of what somebody else needs. What thing or things will get this person through today? It’s just how she is wired.
After a few minutes Ginger stood, and I could tell their brief conversation was over. I assumed we were going to give her some cash, and I didn’t have a problem with us giving this homeless woman some money – I really didn’t. It just happened to be true that both my wife and I are dedicated debit/credit card users, and almost never carry actual cash with us anymore, so we had nothing to give her. Ginger took my hand again and led me away. I could see that there were tears in her eyes – streaming down over a face I knew all too well. We were on a mission.
As she led me with purpose up the street, she said simply; “We need an ATM”.
“I know” was all I said in response, and off we went down the street, looking for modern easy access to our cash reserves.
As we walked, she added; “I don’t even care if her story is true or not”.
“I know” I said again.
A couple of blocks down the street, we located an ATM in a hotel lobby. Ginger waited outside while I went in and withdrew $20 from my account. I went back outside and handed Ginger the cash. She kissed me on the cheek without a word, took my hand, and we were headed back down the street to where we had left Linda a few minutes before.
As Ginger pulled out the $20 and put it into Linda’s hand she told her “This will cover two nights at the shelter”. Linda bowed her head in gratitude, thanking Ginger over and over, and crying all over again. Then she asked if we would pray with her – right there on the sidewalk.
Ginger and I are not religious people. Certainly not in a traditional, Christian sense of the word. But this poor woman wanted to pray with us, and who were we to say no? We just rolled with it.
Linda took Gingers hand and took my hand, and proceeded to thank God for us both, and for a list of other things she seemed to be able to think of to be thankful for. When she was finished, she followed up with a stream of “God bless you”s and “Thank God for you both” and such. We wished her well, told her it was nothing and we were glad to help, and said our goodbyes.
We walked away thinking that was the last we would see of Linda. I had a sense of peace about the whole thing. If her story was true, she really did need our help, and I am glad we were there. If her story was bullshit, and she had just taken us for $20, so be it. I bet she needed it way more than we did.
So we kept walking, and around the next corner happened by a BBQ joint that looked promising, so we stopped there to get some lunch. The food was indeed delicious – and plentiful. After doing our best to devour the mountain of ribs and brisket and an endless stream of coleslaw and corn bread, we admitted defeat, and could eat no more. There was tons of food left, but we were completely stuffed.
We had just noted what a shame it was that there was so much food left over, when I looked out the window and there she was. Across the street was Linda, wheeling her cart behind her as she walked slowly along.
I looked at Ginger, and she looked at me. That was all it took. Ginger was up and out the door of the restaurant like a shot. I sat quietly and watched as she ran across the street and spoke again to Linda. After a brief exchange, Linda was following her back across to our side and into the restaurant.
Ginger had her sit down with us – switching over to my side of the table to give Linda plenty of room. We formally introduced ourselves, and then we ordered her some sweet tea and asked the waitress for a clean setup.
And so we sat and spent some time with Linda. She loved the BBQ, and was very
thankful for the meal. While she ate, she entertained us with stories of her life. Her children now grown, and some of the challenges she had overcome back in Detroit. Mostly we just sat and listened. That was what she really wanted – even more than the food. She was just happy to have somebody to sit and talk to. Somebody who treated her like a human being.
After some time – I really lost track of how long, but the sun was getting low in the sky – we paid the check and began to say our goodbyes to Linda. The homeless shelter was down the street, but would not be opened for a couple of more hours. As we stood, Ginger pulled the waitress aside and told her that our friend was going to stay awhile and enjoy the view. I leaned in a bit and whispered in her ear “I’d appreciate it if you could keep her tea filled”. The waitress smiled at us. “Oh I know Linda. We’re slow this afternoon. she is welcome to stay as long as she likes”. Then she turned to Linda, saying “Just lemme know when you need more tea sweetie”. Linda shook both our hands one last time, said a few more “bless you”s for good measure, and we headed back to our hotel. That was the last we ever saw of Linda.
We walked back to the hotel in silence – holding hands again, and just walking. I reflected on our afternoon and thought about Linda. I decided I was not sure if Linda’s story was true, or if that was the story she used on the tourists to get money from them. I also decided that it didn’t matter. At the end of the day one of two things was true. Either Linda’s story was true, and we really did help a decent woman just down on her luck and in need of some help. Or Linda was just a con artist, who eeks out a living scamming the tourists around the Georgia Aquarium. Either way, she certainly could use the $20, and who are we to judge?
That’s what I learned that day. After more than 20 years together, Ginger still teaches me things every day. On that day I learned that sometimes, you shouldn’t get caught up in the details of whether somebody deserves help or not. Sometimes you have to stop thinking about “the merits of their case”. You need to put down your preconceptions, stow your judgement, and just help them. That’s all. Just do what you can to help. It’s not rocket science.
Nietzsche proselytized that there is no such thing as a selfless act. That anything you might do for another, is really only being done because it makes you feel good about yourself. Your sub-conscience motivation is that you feel good about helping them, not that you actually help the person.
Maybe this is true. Those are bigger thoughts than I usually bother with. What I do know is that no matter what the truth was about Linda, we were satisfied with how we had spent our afternoon. I often think of Linda, and wonder what became of her. I like to think that she was eventually able to gather up enough money for bus fare back to Detroit. She had a cousin there she could stay with.
I also hope that all of us can take a lesson from this. Sometimes – just sometimes, all you have to do is help. Don’t judge. Don’t criticize. Just help. One person at a time.