I was heading into Walgreens when a woman with two small children approached me.
“Sir? Sir… can you help?”
Her voice was raspy, and she had a piece of paper that she held out to me. In small, shaky script was a story about her children being sick and her having lost her job. I don’t remember all of the details. I said, “I don’t have any cash.” She replied, “Please sir, we are hungry… we just need food. Maybe some diapers.”
So I told her to follow me into the store. I said, “I need to go pick up a prescription. Find what you need. Be reasonable. And meet me at the front when you are ready.”
I picked up my prescription, and went to the front, and she was there with a shopping cart full of stuff.
Before I continue, I want to say that I’ve used this strategy before. I think of it as kind of an experiment: rather then telling them what they can and cannot get, or how much I’m willing to spend, I test them to see what they will do if it is left up to them. Almost every time, I am pleasantly surprised. Whether from modesty or embarrassment or just plain good morals, most of the times I’ve done this the people have gotten the absolute necessities, in the cheapest possible varieties. Usually the bill comes to between $40 and $80, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the restraint they show. In one case, back when I lived in L.A., the woman was so timid about picking stuff out for herself I actually encouraged her to get more.
I have a great deal of compassion for the homeless and the destitute. If you haven’t read my previous writings on the topic, I’d ask you to check out:
Now let’s get back to the main story.
I smiled at her and walked with her up to the cash register, and watched as it was unloaded and the items were rung up. There were brand name diapers, and sugary cereals. There were toys, and candy. Where was nothing that looked like a nutritious meal, and even counting the sweets and brand name snack foods, more than half of the haul was not edible. The total bill came to $150.
I didn’t say a word as I swiped my card, and took the receipt, and helped to bag everything before walking out the doors of the store with the woman and her children. Standing in the parking lot, I turned to her, and leaned in closely to make sure I could be heard without raising my voice.
I placed the long receipt for all of the items into her hand, and looked her in the eyes. “You keep this,” I said with emphasis, a slight frown on my face as I squinted my eyes, looking into hers. “You told me you were hungry, and there’s not a lot of food in these bags.”
She started to speak, but at this point I wasn’t interested in hearing what she had to say. I kept talking over her: “I’m sure you had reasons for getting the things you got. And I like seeing kids smile, too. But if you’re hungry now, you’re going to be hungry again very soon. So you hold onto this… and I hope they let you exchange some of these things for stuff that will last a little longer.”
It was the best thing I could think of to do.
What do you think? What would you have done?