Riceboro, Georgia, United States — Today
I looked at the crow and he looked back.
He said to me, “Son, I don’t want your Big Mac.”
“The Lord’s taking care of me; yes indeed!”
“Now go on, son, help your brother in need.”
I should have said it right away. “What are you having?” Simple enough to ask. He was standing right next to me. I didn’t say it. Instead, I said… nothing. Frozen like a fish filet, afraid to speak up. And for no justifiable reason. That makes me angry at myself. There’s more chicken in me than in those McNuggets waiting for some hungry customer. Speaking of hungry customer, that HE was; well, hungry, but not a customer. I saw him peripherally. I didn’t dignify him with an acknowledgement or even a glance as he approached the cashier. Maybe I’m just tired from being on the road. Did I even notice him right away? He spoke softly to the cashier. Her loud reply echoed in the small McRestaurant. “I DON’T KNOW IF WE CAN DO THAT – I’LL HAVE TO ASK MY MANAGER!” Spotlight on Man In Line: Now Showing for One Moment Only. All eyes on him, including mine. He looked rough. I wondered if his backpack held all his possessions. Long unkempt hair, tangled beard, weather-worn skin? Check, check, and check. He’s HOMELESS! One of THEM! He must have asked the girl for food; maybe only leftovers that were just going to be tossed out. Whatever nobody else would eat. He obviously hadn’t asked for money. He didn’t ask anyone else in the restaurant for anything, either. He didn’t speak again, didn’t even lift his eyes from the floor. He just stood silently, like the rest of us, waiting for his answer.
I had it figured in my head. If the answer was No, I’d simply ask “What are you having?” Couldn’t his lunch be on me, just this once? I never do this. Like many people, I avoid eye contact; I avoid the individual entirely, if at all possible. Confrontation with the less fortunate makes me nervous. Not because they frighten me. Not because I don’t care, but because I care too much about everyone else’s reaction. That’s what frightens me. Why, they’ll look at ME! What will they think about ME? Will I receive the same scornful look they’re giving this guy? I feel jittery, and I haven’t even drank any of my Coke yet. I’m waiting for my double-cheeseburger. The McCashier is back. “I’M SORRY, BUT MY MANAGER SAYS WE DON’T DO THAT!” The hungry man is dismissed; before I can even move, he is gone. But the show goes on. Two McWorkers standing idly at the counter are loudly discussing “beggars” and their “scams.” Thankfully the subject of their conversation has moved on.
My McFood is ready. I sit down. I’m mad at me. I told myself I would buy the man a meal if he was refused. But I had not. That man clearly has bigger worries than what others think of him – Isn’t that true of me as well? I sigh, disappointed in my failure to act. I check my messages on my Blackberry. I feel guilty. Guilty, for what I have. A a cell phone, a car, a home. I don’t have a lot, but the hungry man has less. Now I tell myself, while I eat, that if I somehow get a second opportunity, I WILL help. I’ll buy him a meal. As if to torment my conscience, he’s now in view outside the window. He’s wheeling a bicycle, actually, two bicycles, attached to one another to form a makeshift cart. There’s bags draped over the sides. I guess all his possessions weren’t in that backpack. I watch him while I eat. The wind is gusting; he works hard, leaning forward, straining. He wheels his cart away from the food mart of the gas station; they didn’t give him any food either. He’s headed for the highway. I haven’t even finished my lunch yet. He’ll be gone by the time I could possibly get him anything and go outside. Whew, that settles that. I can enjoy the last few bites of my meal while my nervousness dissipates. Now I’m mad at me for feeling relieved! But what can I do?
I peer out the window to see where he made off to. There’s his bike/cart parked next to the highway, and there he is seated on the ground next to it. His cardboard sign reads “BROKE — PLEASE HELP.” Okay, I’m doing this – I think. Let’s go. Trash hastily thrown out, I get back in the now-busy line. I tell the cashier I want three cheeseburgers and an apple pie to go. Okay, two apple pies; they’re two for a buck. The order is to go, I tell her. I wonder if she knows what I’m up to. I wonder if I’m going to be the subject of conversation as soon as I leave. In my car I have a Vitamin Water for the drive ahead. I put it in the bag, with the McFood I left with, and pause. Standing beside my car, it’s deja-vu. I falter. Time to over-think things – AGAIN. I might hold up traffic if I stop down there. Somebody might beep their horn at me, at us. The McWorkers are probably going to see me, and resent that I’m encouraging this person to stay outside their restaurant. Wait. I’ve got an out. I could just drive on by. No one will know, will they? The food will keep, and I’ll be hungry later; I have a long drive ahead.
The crow helps me make up my mind. Standing a few feet away, eye-to-eye with me, head cocked to one side, thoughtfully? Questioningly, perhaps even accusingly? Funny, just yesterday I watched a documentary about how intelligent crows are. Sure enough, he looks intelligent; I’d never noticed that in a crow before. What IS he thinking? Is he as disappointed in me as I am? To my shame, for a moment I think, he wants some food, what can I give him? That seals the deal. How am I even considering food to him, while debating whether or not to give it to a human being?
The crow reads my thoughts and flies away. There he is, perched on the McNic table outside. Many folks have sat there to eat, many kids have dropped food, and many more will come and do the same. The crow will be fed; the crow will be fine. What of the hungry man? Why is it so difficult for me to carry out this simple act of kindness? I have time to think about it while I’m driving alone down the interstate. But that question isn’t on my mind just now. No, for a long time, I think about how good it felt to hand the man his bag, to simply say, “Here’s some lunch, and a cold drink.” To hear his grateful “God bless you.” It feels good to think that in some small way I helped. My “good deed for the day.” The inner satisfaction purges any shameful worries, indecision, reluctance I had had earlier.
I don’t know the background of the man I fed. I’ll never know his story. Is it possible he really was just a “scammer” like the McCashiers had asserted in their loud discussion? That doesn’t even matter. The act of kindness was for me just as much as for the hungry man. Maybe even more for me. Fact is, I’m feeling pretty good about myself right now. Does that make my action nothing more than self-serving? I don’t think so; but does that matter either? The experience was a good one for myself, and for the hungry man. We’re both better for it; his stomach, my psyche. So what if it’s only temporary; it’s a start, isn’t it? How, I wonder, do I hold on to this feeling? I decide that I won’t stop again for food this afternoon. That way, I didn’t just give the homeless man lunch – I gave him MY lunch. Again, indulgent on my part. Especially now that I’m telling the story, making myself some sort of McHero. But I think that’s my point. What’s wrong with taking action, even a simple one, to better yourself? I have no illusions about what I’ve done. I didn’t lead a nation across the Red Sea. I didn’t stop the rise of Nazism, abolish slavery, or pull anyone out of a burning building. Anyone could have done what I did. And that’s also the point.
Today, I have been reminded of the people I love. I’ve thought about how fortunate I am to have generous parents, who taught me and showed me that happiness lies in giving, not receiving. I’m thankful that I have a warm home that I’m travelling back to. And what of the hungry man? He’s going to need another meal soon. I’m confident that someone out there will see to it. Don’t just think about it; do it, right now. Give someone a break today.
Proverb: “Giving to the poor is lending to God.”
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