Coffee Shop Compassion

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…

Split Second Karma

I have a confession to make; I greatly dislike eggs with runny yolks. We all have them – those idiosyncrasies about us that exist without explanation. One of mine just happens to be runny eggs; it’s not so much dislike as despise, really. For me, they rank right up there in the “irrational things that freak people out category”. So much so that, this morning, I lied to my husband – who had so kindly made breakfast for the family – in order not to hurt his feelings. You see, my daughter loves her eggs that way, which is why he chose that method. She dips her toast in them; she even has a nickname for them, calling them “the poach” (which, clearly, is an incorrect reference to the manner in which they’re cooked, but she continues the misnomer even after numerous corrections). And this morning upon seeing his culinary creation and hearing my daughter’s delight (“Daddy made my favorite poach, Momma!”) I didn’t have the heart to criticize his efforts, nor did I have the stomach to pretend to consume them. So I feigned lack of hunger, said my goodbyes, and headed off to work.

Confession number two: I am a sucker for Starbucks breakfast sandwiches (though I have never been a coffee drinker, so how I got sucked into their franchise in the first place still baffles me). So when my empty stomach began protesting about 15 minutes into my drive-time, I began anticipating the exit quickly approaching where I knew there was an easily accessible Starbucks drive-thru. The freeway traffic at this point was fairly clear, as I’d left the house early. I pulled off, procured my prize, and was back en route within about 10 minutes time.

But the freeway I returned to in no way resembled the one I’d just left. Upon entering the on-ramp, I could see that I was heading toward a massive wall of grid-locked cars that were barely moving. Glancing farther up the lanes (there are three at this juncture) I could see that all of them were stacked; it was as if I’d left a deserted country lane and returned to a downtown New York street in rush hour.

Clearly something had literally just happened. My suspicion was confirmed when I suddenly heard sirens, and all of us in the three lanes quickly had to converge into two in order to let first an ambulance, then a fire engine pass. By this point we were crawling along, and I was able to make out additional emergency lights not too far ahead. I spent the next 20-40 minutes inch-worming with the rest of the traffic as we all now merged into one lane and, eventually, followed a serpentine pattern through where there had obviously been a fairly large collision (verified by the radio traffic team to have included four vehicles).

The congestion combined with the delay was initially very frustrating. Especially since my whole point of leaving the house early this morning was to get to work early and get some tasks out of the way before all the hustle and bustle began in the office. But when I got to the point of the accident itself, I noticed two officers clearing a motorcycle – now void of its rider – out of the way. It made me pause; first in the hope that that rider, and the other drivers involved were hopefully not seriously injured. But then, I thought of the timing of the whole scene. How it really seemed to come out of nowhere in the short time it took me to exit and then re-enter the freeway. 10 little minutes to purchase a breakfast sandwich; had something that banal really changed the outcome of my day? And, if so, in which direction?

I am a firm believer in Karma. I truly feel that for whatever energy you choose to put out into the universe – good, bad, positive, negative – you will somehow receive the same. And on this morning, when I realized how this little 10 minute shift may have affected me, it made me wonder for just a moment, “hmmm…good Karma, or bad?” I initially assumed that perhaps I had bad Karma for lying to my husband about breakfast and was now stuck in traffic being late for work. But when I thought about it further, I wondered if it was possible I was receiving good Karma for some other past action, and had narrowly missed being in the accident myself. For if I had stayed on the freeway and not exited, if I had not given up those 10 minutes of travel, I surmise that I would have been in that exact spot at almost that exact time; the same spot where they removed the broken, riderless motorcycle from.

I chose to believe the latter, and instead carried myself with a little extra caution for the rest of the day. Feeling like I narrowly missed disaster already, I guess I didn’t want to chance it. Though I’m sure the egg incident will come back at me in some form, or another; it’s really only a matter of Karmic timing.