Questioning the “content of my character”


Like a lot of people who are lucky enough to have jobs with paid holidays, I had today off work for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After going out for breakfast with a friend I decided to go to the YMCA. I went up my usual exit ramp from the freeway, where I then make a left turn. There is almost always someone standing there holding a cardboard sign, asking for money. Like a lot of people, I usually try to avoid eye contact. The fact that I do that makes me uncomfortable with myself. I’m certainly not against helping a stranger and I’m not afraid of homeless people. “But there has to be a better way to solve this problem, right?”, I tell myself.

There’s one particular guy who I see a lot – at that exit and others, who (in my opinion) gives exit ramp sign holders a bad reputation. He looks to be in his mid-twenties, good looking, decent clothes, Nike bag at his feet. He’s been holding up the same “ABSOLUTE DESPERATION” sign for at least 3 – maybe 4 winters now. Of course I shouldn’t judge. He may indeed be absolutely desperate. One of these days, I’m going to stop and talk to him. But I don’t want to give him money. Maybe I’m an uncaring, arrogant jerk. I don’t know.

That’s what bugs me – I don’t know. What does it take for someone to cross my threshold of caring? What does a person have to look like or act like? What if every passing car gave each sign holder a dollar? Would that help? Is that the answer? Isn’t there a better way? I honestly don’t know.

Yesterday morning, I was in Chicago. It was 15 degrees and windy. As I left the nice downtown hotel where I’d spent the night, I walked past a couple of people lying on the sidewalk, covered by coats, rags, cardboard – obviously anything they could find. Were they sleeping? Were they alive? I don’t know. Did I care enough to try to help them? Obviously not.

So, back in the Twin Cities today, I’m on the exit ramp on the way to the “Y”. There was a middle-aged man and woman I’ve never seen before. If they hadn’t had a cardboard sign announcing their desperation, I might have assumed they were just out of gas or their car broke down on the way home from work. But for his bulky winter coat, the man looked like he could have just left his good-paying job in one of the nearby office buildings. His female companion was also bundled up and actually just sitting in the snow.

By the way, they were white.

I was relieved to be second in line at the stop light, so I didn’t have to maneuver my eyes to look everywhere but at them, like I usually do. In front of me was an expensive, new car. After a minute of waiting, the driver’s window rolled down and an arm handed the guy some money. He thanked the driver as the light changed and the car drove off. As it rounded the corner in front of me, I could see that the driver was a Black woman.

I don’t know why that should be relevant or ironic or touching, but on this, of all days – it was.

Dr. King hoped that someday people would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

It’s a brilliant line. But the older I get, the more it makes me squirm.