The other day I was driving through a densely populated suburban area when I saw a man holding a "Will work for food" sign. It stabbed me in the heart. Here was a man standing on the side of a heavily trafficked road (Woodbridge Ave in Edison, NJ), declaring that he was hungry, and no one could care less.
What the hell kind of world do we live in? I asked myself. This man was hungry; he wanted food--not money for drugs or alcohol as most cynics would predict, food.
That's it, I promised myself. If he's there on my way back, I'm giving him some food. By sheer chance, I had an apple, a bagel, and half of a can of cashews in my lunch bag.
Sure enough ten minute later on my return route he was still standing there.
"Excuse me," I said as I pulled up, "are you hungry?"
He was a middle-aged white man, his skin creased from years in the sun. He climbed off the curb, rubbed his spine, and said, "Yeah," in a way that sounded more like "Why, do I look hungry?" I reread his "Will work for food" sign just to make sure I hadn't asked a complete stranger if he was hungry.
"Would you like this?" I offered him the bagel in a plastic bag.
"Sure," he said. For some reason I imagined that he would tear into the thing right there and then, but he didn't. I guess he wasn't hungry at this very moment.
I extended the apple in his direction.
"Can't eat that," he answered matter-of-factly, and patted his stomach, "Gastritis." Or at least that's what I think he said.
Another surprise. I never heard of a hungry person refusing food; it never happened that way on TV. But if the guy had dietary restrictions, why shouldn't he say no? He wasn't going to eat something that made him sick.
Next came the cashews.
He waved them away too. "Can't eat them either," he muttered.
And then it was over. He walked back to his spot on the curb. Before I drove away, I saw him place the bagel on the hood of a blue van with some business advertisements on the side.
Was that his van? I wondered as I drove away. If so, he must own some kind of business. Maybe that was the work he was offering on his sign.
The whole situation was very odd. I don't know what I had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't this casual of an interaction. I guess something more cinematic: a gesture of Buddhist compassion in a cold, callous world.
Dogen says that compassion is like a hand adjusting a pillow in the middle of the night--natural, spontaneous, selfless.
My act was none of these. It was too intentional and self-satisfying.
True giving has no expectations.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: technosailor.