One random morning a stranger asked me for a matchbook. That, in itself, is not significant. The events that took place before and after, however, certainly were.
You see, our family is like many in America; middle-class, fairly fortunate, insulated from poverty and hardship. We have a nice house, food in our pantry, a car to drive, and jobs to support us. We are aware, however, that there are lots of people in this country that do not have what we do. I try to educate my daughter about helping others that have less than us, and we make efforts to give when we can.
On this occasion, my daughter and I were on an early morning trip to Starbucks in Portland, OR. We’d flown out from Ohio, so we were still on East Coast time and I was trying to get my rambunctious 6-year-old out of the house for a bit so she wouldn’t wake the rest of the family at 5:30 am.
As we were sitting at our table enjoying our goodies, I noticed a man crossing the street towards the shop. He was wearing only a black t-shirt and sweatpants (despite it being fairly cool and rainy), he was slightly balding and bent over walking, and he was missing his right arm from the elbow down. After watching briefly I turned back to my daughter and our conversation which she abruptly stopped, because she had a serious question.
“Mom, why did that man pick a used cigarette off of the ground?” I turned to look as the man I had noticed before now entered the shop. I told her I would explain a little later since we were now, with him, the only patrons in the shop and I didn’t want to embarrass him in case he overheard us discussing it. I heard him ask the baristas for a book of matches, to which they answered they had none. He then turned and looked at me, rather sheepishly, and asked the same.
Without really thinking about it I stood up and told him I had no matches, but would he like a cup of coffee instead? He stared at me for a moment, as if he was confused by the shift in topic, and then answered, “Yes, that would be nice.” I led him over to the counter and said that they had breakfast sandwiches, and would he also like something to eat? He pointed at the example in the case and said the sausage one looked good. We got him squared away and he came and sat next to us. He introduced himself then, “Charlie Chester”, and shook my hand. I did the same, introducing myself and my daughter. We made small talk while we ate; I told him where we were from, he told me where he got his shirt with the ten bats. He seemed a bit disconnected, but happy to have some company. It occurred to me that perhaps it was not often that anyone took the time to speak with him. He had kind eyes. I noticed he was a bit shy but tried to connect with me and my daughter, though she was oddly irritated and wouldn’t respond to him. I tried to keep myself the focus of the conversation until we were done, then wished him a good day as we packed up to go. He thanked me wholeheartedly, and told my daughter “You sure have a nice Momma.” to which she scowled and said a snipped “Thank you.”
As we got into the car, I asked her why she was so irritated and rude to the man. I was sure it had something to do with the fact that he was a stranger, or dressed shabbily (and, to be honest, probably could have used a shower), etc. I was surprised by her answer: “You didn’t even know him, and you gave him our money, Mom.” I did not expect that she was possessive of our giving to him in that way. Especially since the week before she had voluntarily chosen to give her own gumball quarters to the Children’s Hospital fundraiser at her school, and we often pack up her extra unused stuffed animals and take them to the fire station for children in need. It then occurred to me that she didn’t see what I so clearly did, that this man was so very much in need. I suppose she just thought he was some random man and I had just handed over something I could have given her instead.
I then proceeded to try and explain, in my best 6-year-old-speak, about Charlie Chester and his world. I shared that his funny bat shirt and shabby tennis shoes were probably the only clothes he owned. The coffee and sandwich that Momma bought him with “our” money this morning would probably be the only thing he ate today, maybe even tomorrow, unless he found something else in a garbage can to scrounge (“People DO that, Momma??” “Yes, they do honey, when they have nothing they do lots of things you’ve never thought of…”). Charlie Chester probably has no place to sleep at night, except wherever he can find outside to stay out of the rain and wind, if he’s lucky; no bed, no pillow, no blanket, no roof. And certainly no “friends” (what she calls her stuffed animals) to keep him company. Wherever he goes he has to rely on his two feet, because he also has no car or bicycle or scooter.
At this point, her eyes were fairly wide, and I had her full attention. I reminded her how she made the choice the week before to give her quarters to the Children’s Hospital (“Yeah, so I can help the little babies who need it!”), and to give her old “friends” to the fire station (“For kids who don’t have ANY friends at all, Momma.”). I told her just like her acts of kindness, I was choosing to help Charlie Chester with my money, at which point I think it finally connected for her.
It was really an interesting morning of learning, for both of us. I was surprised that I had just assumed that my daughter would automatically have known poverty and sadness when it walked in front of her. I felt that I already talked a lot to her about helping people, but clearly I’ve not done a good job about showing her who those people are, or what the need for help really looks like. I was reminded that though compassion is innate, generosity is sometimes learned by example. We’re getting there…