Finding good people

I’m always torn. The guy — it’s always a guy — is on the corner panhandling. The question is: To give, or not to give? To say something, or say nothing?

I think of the old Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby”:

“All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?

“All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?”

Friends who have dedicated their lives to helping out warn me not to give money. Hand them a little card with directions to the local Catholic Charities. Or a nearby soup kitchen. Or even a gift certificate for a fast food joint. Not money. Money goes to booze or dope.

But advanced preparation is not one of my virtues. When I encounter a panhandler, all I usually have is a wallet with a few bucks. If I don’t give anything, I feel like I’m kicking a Scripture mandate out of the car.

Recent example: I’m three cars behind at a light with four in back. I notice up ahead that one of the boys is at the corner. I go for the wallet, but he is bent over wrestling with something in his beat-up kit bag. The light turns green just as he looks up. We make brief eye contact, but I have to go before the horns in back of me start to blast. Definition of instantaneous.

I considered circling back to take care of him. But you know how it is — places to go, people to see. I make the excuse to myself that I shouldn’t give money, like my friends tell me. But it doesn’t help much, and I still feel guilty. So it goes.

It’s time I tell you something. A little over four years ago I took a health sabbatical from this space for a couple of months. The docs found a tumor on my larynx. They had to take out the entire larynx.

The result? Still around. But I’ve got a nearly quarter-sized hole in my throat for all the world to see.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t be less self-conscious about it. I have discovered, however, that nobody knows what to say to a guy with a hole in his throat. So they say nothing. The only exceptions are people who have a loved one that went through something similar. They’ll ask how I’m doing. Offer prayers. But most don’t say a thing.

People are good. So very good. They smile broadly, talk sweet, and pretend that a big hole in my throat doesn’t exist. If I pointed it out to explain, they would probably look surprised and say they hadn’t noticed.

Their eyes give them away. They keep going to it, but they are so considerate, not wanting to say or do anything that could somehow hurt my feelings.

I want to tell them not to worry. But I don’t want to embarrass them or make them uncomfortable. So we all keep quiet about it, ignoring that 500-pound gorilla at the bar.

I was driving to Muncie, Indiana, of all places. It was just a day after my missed encounter with the panhandler at the traffic light.

As I pulled off the exit I stopped at the cross traffic to make a left turn. A panhandler was standing there, and I thought of my missed chance. I couldn’t let this one go by as well.

I gave him the wiggle-waggle with my hand, the universal sign that it was OK for him to come over. I got out my wallet and rolled down the window.

And he took one look at me and shouted: “Holy &#!$! You’ve got a hole in your throat!”

He reached through the window with both arms, leaned in and gave me a big hug. “I love you, brother,” he said. “Thanks,” I managed.

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He started to pull away. He wasn’t going to let me give him anything.

But then he did. And I did. With a not very sincere, silent apology to my friends.

People are good. So very good. Especially the lonely ones.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.