His name is Thomas

As I leave my air-conditioned office I wonder what a nightmare traffic will be on the way home. I need to get dog food and I must not forget to water the garden (if disobedient grass, suicidal plants and a growing collection of rocks could be called a garden). I wonder why I work so far away from home, I wonder if the grocery store will be annoying busy and if the fool driving behind me is a secret agent or a spy because he refuses to use his indicators (he can’t give away his next move of course). Life is tough.

He stands at the side of the road; I see him almost every day but today is different. Today he is no longer holding out his white plastic cup and approaching cars when they stop at the traffic light. Today he is close to the ground, knees bent, arms furiously working and he does not even notice the cars stopped beside him. I see him at a dip in the road, a dip that acts as a basin for the water escaping from the sprinklers nearby and his actions move me so unexpectedly and profoundly that for a moment I forget where I am. The young man, with his face painted white, is bent over the pool of water diligently scooping what he can with his plastic cup and emptying it into the shrub closest to him. The uneven writing on his cardboard sign tells me that he has no food and that he needs help and I drive to the grocery store unable to shake the image of him bent over that pool of water.

I feel that I need to reward him; I need to find a way to show him that his simple, selfless act meant something to me. I am distracted at the grocery store, I hastily buy him a pie, a Coke and a chocolate and I am nervous and eager to give him this bounty. He is both shy and grateful when my hooter gets his attention but he is not keen on making conversation. I drive away from him not sure what to feel. It is almost as though my thoughts have lost their smooth roundness and their rough edges were now snagging and catching, embedding themselves on to other thoughts, annoying splinters that needed to be picked at.  Why did his hunger not move me to action previously? I do not need your leftovers or spare change for my next meal, I have more than I need. Why is that not enough to move me to action? It bothered me that I had no idea whether he wanted that pie, or chocolate or Coke, I just assumed that he should be grateful for it. How dare I assume that he should be grateful for my guilt? How dare I use this one single act to make myself feel better, to make myself feel like I was doing something good? It was not enough, it is not enough. It is not enough to complain about our country, about poverty, crime, unemployment or inequality if the solutions we seek are as selfish and superior as that hand out. I am reminded of Peter Singer’s concept of utilitarianism and I wonder why I have not done more, why I have accepted this reality, why anyone in this country should ever know or live the humiliation of begging for their next meal. It is not enough, I have not done enough and knowing that is the first step to understanding that I have been part of the problem as well.

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