He called out to me as I was taking the blue recycling bin out of the side yard by the garage to roll to the curb. He had stopped his bicycle in the middle of the street, several feet away from the mouth of the driveway, when he had ridden by and seen me. He called me “sir,” and said he didn’t mean to startle me.
I was already in a bad mood for no good reason. I’d spent what felt like fifteen minutes searching through piles of shoes looking for my sandals, muttering frustratedly about never being able to find anything in my mess of a house. Then, once in the backyard where my wife and girls were playing with the dog in the spring air after dinner, I tried unsuccessfully to put air in The Pumpkin’s flat bike tires with a pump that was either broken or just impossible for me to figure out, adding self-pity to the frustration.
Now, here was this stranger intruding into the few minutes of solitude I’d have all day (taking out the trash!), probably a panhandler or can collector looking to get into the recycling bin I was dragging toward the curb. I was ready to blow him off, like I do most people who ask for money since the long-ago time I gave bus fare to one stranded man only to see him hitting up others with the same spiel hours later.
He stayed astride his bike, proffering his driver’s license as proof of his identity. He had lost his job but couldn’t collect unemployment because of a dispute with his ex-employer. He and his two daughters were homeless, had been on the street, then in a shelter which they left after he became concerned with the attention being given his daughters by an adult male resident. Tonight was their fourth night in a motel, where a neighbor lady was watching the girls, paying by the day as he scrounged the money. He was hoping to make the last $17 doing any odd jobs in the neighborhood. He’d made some money scrubbing out buckets for a florist, but he’d do anything, for whatever one would be willing to give.
I sighed, not knowing what to do. I didn’t think he was conning me. He seemed utterly sincere, contrite, and undemanding. I told him I didn’t have anything he could do around the house. I asked him about other resources, other service providers he’d tried to use. He named a few that he’d been to, said that they had some food but he was concentrating on finding work to make enough money to keep a roof over their heads for one more day, to make it one more day.
I told him to stay right there, that’d I’d be right back, and I went inside. I wondered what kind of reception he’d gotten from others he’d approached in the neighborhood that day, a lone black man on a bicycle in an area where there weren’t that many others. I thought about my girls, glancing at them through the back window as they played without a care, my wife probably wondering where I’d gone, what I was doing. I put a tray of leftover pad thai that la dra. had brought home from a meeting two nights before into a plastic bag and got a twenty dollar bill from my wallet, and headed back outside. As I walked past the kitchen window, I saw him wiping tears from his eyes.
I walked up to him and handed him the bag, telling him that it was stir-fried noodles, too much for us to eat alone. He thanked me as he took the bag, taking my soft, unexperienced hand in his rough, calloused one and shaking it. I don’t know how much older than me, pushing forty, he was, if at all, but his hands were proof of a life of hard work, all done for his family’s sake, a life I can’t imagine and by luck and circumstance have avoided having to know. As he thanked me, I handed him the folded bill and said, “I’m a father too.” I watched his eyes water as he saw what it was. I knew exactly what it was–three more dollars than he needed to guarantee one more night of shelter for his girls, enough so he could stop looking for work for the day and go be with them. He shook my hand again, firmly, thanked me again in a voice I could tell he was trying to keep from breaking. Was there anything he could do for me, he asked, any chore or odd job, anything at all? No, I said. Just take care of your children, I said, and take care of yourself.
After he thanked me again and rode away, I walked back into the backyard and found my loves in the far corner, at the play structure. The Button was sitting sideways on the swing, yelling “Yee haw!” as she pretended it was a horse. The Pumpkin was climbing up as high as she could go, saying, “Look at me! Look at me, Daddy!” Their mother was next to the play structure, playing with Fluffy, and she looked up as if to ask where I’d been. And without a word, I went to each of them, holding their faces in my soft hands and placing a kiss on their foreheads. My girls just laughed and went on playing, knowing that their mommy and daddy were there, and that they loved them. And at that moment, that is all they needed to know.