Newark Penn Station, Thursday, July 13, 2:01 PM.
The air conditioning must’ve been broken, because the train station was swelteringly hot. So I took the escalator upstairs and outside to Track 3, desperate for some moving air. He approached me as I turned the corner on the railway platform.
“I just want a meal,” he said through ragged upper teeth and lower ones worn down to the gum on the diagonal to the left. “I’m not pulling your leg, honest. People been mean to me today. Nobody nice. I just wanna eat.”
They’re always there, and they always find me, it seems—these aggressively gregarious strangers, these master storytellers, these well-rehearsed actors auditioning for a bit part of my purse.
I may look and be approachable, but I don’t give handouts easily. Nor am I entirely resolved on this issue of how to deal with panhandlers. I agree that it can be a dangerous profession for everyone, and I support saying no and giving, instead, to charities that help the down-and-out. I got toughened up to the issue when I lived for a couple of years in New York City. I once offered a “hungry” woman a half-eaten bag of terra chips, and she refused them with a swift brush of her hand and the snide remark, “Hell, I’m not that hungry!”
Another time, more jaded at that point, I chased down a panhandler after my daughter, with whom I was walking, handed over a dollar. (She was barely eking out a living as it was.) “I hope you appreciate that!” I shouted angrily as he darted off to play to the crowds further down the street. “She worked hard for that money!”
Fourteen years later, I am still irritated by panhandlers, especially as I am living now in a much smaller city well-known for welcoming refugees, and where truly needy people can get every meal of the week at city churches. I bristle when I think of one of our local panhandlers who boasted on the local news, “Why should I get a job when I can make $400 a day doing this?”
I think Yellowstone National Park is a wonderful example of how an aggressive population (bears in this case) reverted to much better behavior when (a) garbage cans were designed to be animal-proof, and (b) they made it unlawful for humans to feed bears. (Back when I was a kid, bears would climb all over your car for handouts. And don’t get me started about the deer that I’ve seen roam freely on zoo grounds near Niagara Falls, that come right up to people and head-butt their crotches, pockets and purses for food.) Handouts turn us all into lesser beings.
All that said, sometimes I get emotionally snagged—because I am deeply concerned about the inequities of wealth and opportunity among people in this country.
He said it again: “I’m not pulling your leg, honest.”
I studied his face, trying to separate truth from fiction like a yolk from an egg white. “My experience is that people who do what you’re doing here are always pulling people’s legs. Panhandling is illegal, you know.”
“I won’t lie. I know it is,” he said. “But I’m desperate.”
I didn’t let him off the hook. “Look me in the eye,” I said, and he obeyed. Radar-locked on each other, I was desperate to be able to see him, to know his real story. But I couldn’t do it. My theory is that the truly needy are often too beaten down to ask, and the beggars are usually professional manipulators who make more money than I do.
“What are you hungry for?” I said, stalling some more.
“A Big Mac,” he said. “Honest, I’m not pulling your leg.”
Then a quick and passing impression I’d had just an hour before flashed back into my mind: I had brought a small, brand new bottle of anointing oil with me on my trip, but I hadn’t felt led to use it, as it turned out. And as I said goodbye to the person with whom I had envisioned I might, a whisper of a thought came to me that there was someone else for whom it was intended.
Finally, I relented and opened my billfold. He backed away respectfully, waiting.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Raj,” he said.
“Okay, Raj,” I said, somehow unable to give him a dollar and handing him a ten-spot instead. “This should take care of your meal.”
“God bless you,” came the cliched response, and I felt a tinge of having been taken—yet again.
Then, quite unexpectedly, he said, “Please pray for me,” and turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said. “I will.” Then, “May I anoint you with oil, too?”
“I don’t know what that is,” he said. “I’m not very religious. But you can do whatever you . . .” and his voice trailed off as he watched me fumble in my purse for the leaf-shaped bottle.
I dabbed the oil onto my right index finger and smeared the sign of a cross on the back of his right hand. “It’s healing oil,” I said. “God bless you, Raj.” And there, skin to skin, stranger to stranger, the intimacy curtain parted for an uncommon communion.
“Smell it,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”
He put his hand up to his nose and then smiled. “It smells like shmmnn.”
I couldn’t understand his last word. “Like what?”
“Shmmnn!” He beamed, then drew the word out. “Shim-a-nin!”
“Cinnamon!” I said. “Yes, it truly does!”
I watched him walk away, upward on a ramp toward Platform H—not down to the food court. I snapped a picture to remember him by, but his back leg disappeared through a door at the far end just as I took it.
I will admit I wanted to immediately wash my index finger. But then I thought of Jesus, who touched the lepers who were desperately starved for human contact from a disdaining community.
I had forgotten to ask Raj how I could pray for him. So in a spirit of prayer and dignifying regard for him, I typed this entire account on the train home with my unwashed index finger.
I can still smell the cinnamon.