Aiding and abetting the fringe

A man with the frame of a scarecrow, draped in loose-fitting gray-green garments, walked toward me as I got out of my car and locked the doors. I’m not hobophobic. I didn’t turn and rush off into the grocery store.

“Hi, how’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty cold,” he said, eyes averted. “And I hate to ask you this but do you have 90 cents so I can get a cup of coffee?”

I dug in my pocket.

“It’s embarrassing for me to have to ask for money,” he continued. “But I need the money so I say, what the heck. Ask. Worst people can do is say no.”

I’ve had this conversation before, possibly with the same man. I handed him four quarters.

His eyes were dark, sunken. Ooze from a bright red sore had dried on his leathery cheek.

“You’re not living outside in this cold weather?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m sleeping behind Wal-Mart, but somebody stole my sleeping bag.”

I imagined a Wal-Mart employee tossing what looked like a filthy mound of fabric into the Dumpster.

“You could freeze to death one of these nights,” I said. “You need to get down to the shelter.”

His excuse for not going was relatively flimsy.

“I lost my ID,” he said.

“They require ID at the shelter?”


(Later, I called the Reno Sparks Gospel Mission and was told that they don’t require ID because so many homeless individuals don’t have any.)

“What about going down to the bus station?” I continue helpfully. “I hear the police will buy you a bus ticket to someplace you might have relatives.”

“My family lives here,” he said. “My sister is worse off than me. And my mom’s in the hospital. She’s on oxygen.”

I frowned.

“You gotta get out of the cold.”

“Yeah, I know.” He shrugged. I didn’t know what else to say.

With that, I turned to walk into the store, enjoying that first blast of warm air from the open doors. I bought bananas and oranges, organic salad and avocados, bread, cheese and wine. A balanced diet. I thought about the scarecrow in the parking lot. Perhaps I could buy him a sleeping bag.

I fretted over this. A terrible thing it is, I’m told, to enable a probable abuser of substances to live on the streets.

And yet, who am I to judge this lifestyle? The chronically homeless live as cryptozoics in our shared world, often hidden from plain sight, surviving on what the rest of us throw away. Their ecological footprint? The planet hardly knows they’re here.

Once during a pre-Katrina visit to New Orleans, I ate powdered-sugar-coated beignets and drank café au lait at the legendary Café Du Monde. The plein air café attracted street musicians who played jazz requests. Birds trotted in and out, picking up crumbs.

One morning, I saw a man standing expectantly outside the café. He had long, thick hair and a flowing white beard. He carried a thick composition notebook with wrinkled pages. When one couple got up to leave a table, complete with two untouched French pastries, the white-haired man darted into the café with gull-like speed and agility. He lifted the pastries from the plate before a waitress started briskly walking up behind him. He then flew out the opposite entrance, to the shout of at least one employee.

We don’t mind birds—but no human beggars, please.

I considered this as I walked through the grocery store. I decided to buy the shivering Reno man a warm sleeping bag. I walked out to my car, scanning the parking lot.

He’d disappeared.