Be both.

"What If We Really Love All Humanity?"

"What If We Really Love All Humanity?"
by Steve Roberts Fine Art

An Image That Made Me Stop

I live in a nice, middle-class neighborhood.  If you travel about a mile in one direction, you'll end up in a wealthy sub-division.  If you travel a mile in the opposite direction, you'll think you're in the ghetto.  On this day, I traveled due ghetto because that's where the cheap grocery stores are.  Hey, I'm squeezing my wallet like everyone else.

I pulled into the local Albertsons parking lot that sits amid a tiny strip mall.  On any given day, there are panhandlers begging for change in front of the small stores.  Like most people, I try not to make eye contact.  Because, I'll admit it; I am afraid of them.  But today I met Arlette.

I've seen her there before, sitting on the hard concrete with her walker beside her.  Today I glanced down and what I saw shook me.  I don't know why this particular image had such an effect on me, but it did.  She was sitting there smoking a cigarette.  Her short, stubby, little legs splayed out in front of her, she smoked that cigarette right down to the butt.  The burning butt was right against the skin of her fingers.  I don't know how she couldn't have felt pain from the embers.  My eyes zoomed in closely on one detail.  Her fingers, where the burning cigarette touched them, were black.  Black like you would see on severely diseased skin.  I wondered how long it had taken, how many cigarettes she had smoked to cause them to blacken like that.

I continued past her into the store, but my mind whirled.  Those burned fingers!  What had happened to her?  I thought there wasn't really much I could do to help her aside from giving her a couple bucks, which is something I normally don't do.  After purchasing a few items, I decided I would give her a couple dollars.  With the cash in my hand, I walked out of the store.

I hadn't really meant to strike up a conversation with her.  But when I approached her, she looked up at me with that expectant/hopeful look that I would hand over some green.  So I forked it over and she followed up with the obligatory, "God bless you!"  I turned to walk away, then saw her burned fingers in my mind again. I stopped.  Stepping back toward her, I asked if I could ask her a couple questions.  Amazingly, she didn't hesitate to say yes or look at me with suspicion.

You can't see Arlette's burned fingers in this photo.

I asked her how she ended up there, panhandling.  She told me that she receives $637 per month on Social Security and lives in a group home (assisted living) where her rent is $575.  After falling two months behind on her rent, the home gave her the choice of having her SS check sent directly to them or she could find a homeless shelter.  She said she's never been to one but has heard horror stories about the shelters, so she agreed to signing over her monthly stipend.  Her son also sends her $100 per month, and the home takes $25 of that as well.  It will take a little over thirteen months for Arlette to pay off the back rent.  And she has $75 per month left over.  Wow.

She spoke about the perils of pandhandling.  In this city, the police will arrest you if you're caught.  Just today, as she was arriving for her "shift," another bum (her words, not mine) named Eddie was picked up and put in jail.  The cops also took his dog and put him in doggy jail, i.e., the local animal shelter.  Arlette waited about a half hour and then began her hustle.

She said she was trying to get enough money to buy a pouch of tobacco so she could roll her own cigarettes.  As if to prove it, she moved her coat and showed me the plastic baggy with her cigarette papers and the small remnants of loose tobacco.  Odd, because she also had a pack of cigarettes in front of her.  But maybe rolling your own lasts longer.

The entire time I spoke with her, her hands and arms shook.  I wasn't sure if it was from a disability or alcoholism.  But parked right next to her was her walker/wheelchair and in an opaque water bottle was liquid that I couldn't be sure was water.  For all I know, it might have been vodka.  Or lemonade.

I asked Arlette if I could take her picture and put it up on my blog.  Another conversation ensued... "What the hell is a what?  Bog?  Blog?"  I snapped a quick photo and showed it to her.  "That's me," she stated, then seemed to become embarrassed for the first time.  "I don't have my teeth in; they're back at the home."  I smiled and told her it was okay.  But she wanted to explain further.  "A friend of mine gave me some Polident, because the cheap stuff I was using didn't work and my teeth moved around every time I ate.  He didn't like it and had only used the tube a couple times so he gave it to me."  God, I am so lucky, I thought.  Not in a smug way.  In the feel-guilty-for-complaining-about-anything way.

I'm not usually a bleeding heart, but I wanted to know more about Arlette and how & why she decided to panhandle.  She seemed to be happy to have someone to talk to, but I surmised that I was cutting into her cash collection time and told her I would see her again soon.


We see panhandling everywhere, yet we do nothing to understand the issue.We have huge problems with homelessness and it's only growing worse.  There are whole families living in tent cities in the Seattle area and other cities across the nation.  Many are not bums, as Arlette called them.  Many simply cannot afford housing because they have either lost their jobs or don't make enough money to put a roof over their heads.  And yes, some are there because of the choices they made in their lives.  But until you actually talk to someone to get to know them, you cannot judge.  Or more aptly, you should not.  Because you don't know their situation.

I'm glad I met Arlette.  She opened my eyes to a world I had previously refused to see.


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