“Mind if I sit down?” the scruffy young intruder asked. It was the old man’s turf ÿ a secluded corner in a back alley next to the basement of a downtown church. It had been a very long day and the younger and stronger of the men was too weary to fight for a spot. The elder, already settled in for the night beneath a plastic poncho and tattered blanket, extended his bottle in a gesture of friendship. “Rough day, huh kid?” the elder asked in a gravelly voice. He had known plenty himself and recognized the despondent look.
“No work,” the younger responded. “Had to panhandle.” He fished a pocketful of loose change out of his jeans. “Got enough for some Seagrams,” he said, showing that he was not totally destitute. But it was barely enough for a single-shot mini. And the seven block walk to the liquor store was hardly worth the effort.
“I got enough,” the old man shook his nearly-full pint bottle. The younger unrolled a grimy sleeping bag and spread it out on the concrete.
The two sat together not speaking for a long time while the cheap whiskey warmed their innards and smoothed the rough edges of their regrettable reality. Ruminations of the day played through their minds. The younger finally broke the silence, irritated by the recollection of a young white kid — probably a college student — who earlier that day had admonished him to get a job. “Asshole...cocky little bastard...probably living off his daddy’s money...didn’t give me a dime, not a damn dime...has no idea what survival’s about...” The older knew how it felt, had been insulted himself by the kindest and meanest of people, understood better than most the motives behind money being dropped by passers-by into a Styrofoam cup. He listened as the younger spewed the venom from his viscera and eventually began to calm.
“Guilt. That’s why most folk do it,” the elder finally spoke. “They see you lookin’ pitiful and they feel sorry for you ‘cause they have it so good. Givin’ makes ‘em feel better...even advice.”
“Makes ‘em feel superior!” the younger interrupted with anger left over from his earlier tirade.
“Uh huh,” the elder agreed. “Morally superior. And then there’s those that just want to get you out of their face. Like ‘Here’s some change, now leave me alone.’ I don’t mind that kind so much. Kinda honest, really. It’s the ones that want to convert you that really piss me off.” Now the older was feeling some emotion. “Won’t give you a penny for your stomach but want to save your soul. Wouldn’t think of askin’ your name. Don’t want to know you, just save your nameless soul.”
There was silence again for a long time in the alley, the sounds of traffic and distant sirens playing like calming background music. It was the elder who finally spoke up again. The thought of people trying to save his soul was still on his mind. “I ain’t no Christian,” he admitted, “but I love my Jesus.” The younger seemed to understand. How else could you survive on the street all those years without Jesus’ help? “What really gets to me,” he continued, his mind still on Jesus, “is when somebody smiles, looks you in the eye, gives you a bill and wants to shake your hand, tells you to have a good day. A little girl did that to me once. Gave me four dollars! Couldn’t believe it! Probably got the idea in church. Made me feel guilty as hell.” Silence again.
“The easiest money is from poor folk,” the elder was still deep in thought. “They been here, maybe not on the street, but down on their luck, out of money. They know how it feels to need help, and have to ask for it.”
The younger nodded. “Feels good when they call you ‘brother’ even if they never been where you are,” he agreed.
“How ’bout the guys who want to buy you a hamburger?” The younger was engaged again. “Afraid you’re gonna spend their precious pennies on booze or a hit of crack.”
“Insulting,” the elder agreed. “The food leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
The bottle they passed back and forth was down to a couple of swallows and the chill of the night was settling in. Minds, honed by protective survival strategies, were now dulling and defenses relaxed. The older, pleased at having younger company that posed no apparent threat, confided in slurred tones some closely guarded street intelligence on proven panhandling techniques and locations. Asked if he was going to the Thanksgiving dinner the following day at the stadium. The younger, warmed by the friendship of someone who understood how life really is, absorbed the information through fuzzy filters of his mind, nodded in the affirmative about the meal, and drifted off into a fitful sleep.