'Tis the Season to Be Generous--but for Whose Sake?

Thomas Pettepiece is a writer, consultant and producer in San Diego.

The damp air and cooler temperatures in San Francisco were a welcome change from hometown San Diego. Riding the trolley, I wished for my gloves. Soon after arriving at the Wharf, I was sitting in a restaurant bar with a warm drink, looking down from the second-story windows onto the festive crowd. Weather never deters tourists in their hunt for souvenirs.

Two young couples sitting next to me were staring at one spot on the street. I followed their gaze and saw a tall elderly man with thinning hair, dressed in a worn, black cotton overcoat, picking up pieces of popcorn from the sidewalk and eating them one by one. Oblivious to the world around him, like Hansel and Gretel he followed the pieces the length of the walk where they had been strewn.

Suddenly a young woman darted across the rain-puddled street in his direction. It was one of the four who had been sitting beside me. Startling him, she thrust some money into his hand--four dollars, one of her companions said--and looked into the old man's face. As his hand closed around the gift, she turned and began skipping back across the street. Glancing up at the window where her friends were watching, she leaped into the air like a cheerleader and thrust her arms high into the sky. With a bright smile, she hung in the air like the Toyota commercial, her whole body shouting with excitement, "Oh! What a feeling!"

When she returned to the table, her friends began to wonder out loud about who this man was--what his childhood had been like, what he had done for a living, whether he'd been married or had any children, and whom he had loved and been loved by in his lifetime. Did he really want to live on the streets? How did he survive? What did he have left to hope for?

Watching him, listening to them, I recalled the frail man his age I once saw at a garbage dump in Tijuana eating the rotten food he found there, and the blind man guided by his grandson in the Kampuchean refugee camp on the border in Thailand. I wondered which was the worse grief they shared in common--being poor and hungry, or alone and unnoticed.

I remembered the Christmas store a block away, filled with this year's crop of ornaments, music boxes, stuffed animals, lights and accessories, and George Winston's "December" playing over the speakers. Where would the Child have been found today? In the store, in the bar, with the tourists or beside the old man? What would he have made of the four dollars?

While the gesture had been made sincerely, it was symbolic of the depth with which we usually touch the poor. Too often their existence serves only as an object for our holiday compassion. We know virtually nothing about them as persons, or the social, economic and political causes of their poverty. They stand outside our concept and experience of family, even though worldwide they make up the majority of humanity. None of us had talked to the man, or to any of the others who begged on the street that day. Was it our handout or our understanding they needed most? Seldom do we even know.

I could have been anywhere. The lonely live in every city, on every block. They can be found in every family.

Dozens of passers-by had slowed or stopped to watch the man eating food off the sidewalk. Right after the young woman gave him the money, someone else handed him his own fresh bag of popcorn. Suddenly he was aware of being watched. He stood motionless, holding the popcorn in one hand, the money in the other, a folded newspaper under his arm. Then he instinctively stepped back, but the strangers kept watching him. He turned his head from side to side, confused and self-conscious. My heart ached for him.

Finally, putting the money into a coat pocket, he turned, lowered his head, and walked toward the shadow of a nearby building. The moment broken, the crowd moved on.

"Oh," I thought, as he disappeared from view, "what a feeling."

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