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Dollars for Bums

I was on my way north to visit my mother in Tacoma and I stopped at a rest area in Oregon where I noticed the inevitable vet sitting on a walker with a big sign. I went the other way for my five minute walk and peed behind a utility building. Back in my warm truck I got out my opulent Whole Foods salad and glanced over at the bearded vet. I finished lunch, made ready to drive away, and then thought who am I to just drive away? What does that make me? Was it guilt? Self-loathing? 

I thought maybe I'd go over and put a dollar in his money box then leave. Or how about five? Would that buy redemption? How about twenty? A hundred? My wallet was bulging and I wanted to ask him why, how? 

I walked over but he was around the corner in the restroom, his change box on the ground. I put in a twenty, watched it flutter in the wind, lifted a few coins over it, and went back to the car. As I was pulling out the vet returned and seemed to look at his change box with heightened interest. I drove away. 

The next day in Washington I went past a forlorn red-faced creature at her pitiful station by the red light. 

Hey, I gave in Oregon.

* * *

When I come to a stoplight or stop sign and there's a poor person begging with a sign  I usually ignore them or shake my head and just walk or drive on by. Often I think about reaching into my wallet and start to but I don't know what I have and don't have the random compassion to make that little effort.

When I got to Tacoma I decided to get organized and when I went with my mother to the bank I  got ten one-dollar bills from her  teller and folded them into little green triangles. On the way back from the bank I was mock-shouting, “Money! Got free money here!” and saw a disheveled guy sitting on a bench. 

“So how's it going? Everything okay?” I really wanted to find my first recipient.

“I'm taking a break from my roommate,” he said. For some reason there's no homeless in my mom's neighborhood. 

Now when I spot someone by the curb and the light is green I roll down the window and let it fly as I drive by, sometimes shouting out a greeting like, “Hey, here!” 

My sister and mother said it's not nice to throw money at people but I almost always hear a response like, “Thanks man!” (My sister also thinks I'm cheap and should at least throw fives or tens.)

So I've found a way to give a little, as long as I don't put someone's eye out and get sued.

* * *

I finally made it to Mexico and folded blue twenty-peso notes, about a dollar, into triangles. Whenever I went to town I often spotted this man by the side of the road collecting bags of plastic or something. He is very dark out in the sun all day. Surely I could throw one of my blue triangles at him if I got close enough?      

I decided instead to give him quinientos, 500 pesos, about twenty bucks, then thought that might be too big of a bill for him to handle. I stopped the car and counted out about 200 pesos in small bills. I drove over to him, rolled down my window, and said, “Quieres dinero?” Do you want money? He took the colorful wad of pesos without replying and I drove away.

Back up in my mountain hideaway I went through the cupboards and organized all the old food: cooking oil, soy sauce, pancake mix, crackers, flour, nutritional yeast, sunflower seeds, rice, beans, and much more including a tin of smoked oysters.  I put it all in a big black plastic garbage bag, loaded it into my truck, and drove through the mile-long tunnel  down the cobbled road to the desert below. 

When I got to Matehuala I stopped at the gas company to see about getting a leak fixed on my propane tank. After getting the necessary info and the technician's number I walked back to the parking lot and stopped to talk to the guard in his shed by the gate. There was a make-shift dwelling nearby made of pallets, plastic, and laminated metal. I asked the guard if anyone lived there and he said not anymore. When I described the sun-drenched rag man by the side of the road he made the universal sign for “sick in the head.”

I headed over to  get my room at Motel Las Palmas where the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux had stayed earlier that year on his way down to Oaxaca to research his excellent book about Mexico called  ‘On The Plain of Snakes.’

As I drove back to the highway to go downtown, to drop off my latest biz card design at the print shop, I saw the guy across a street from a pile of bags and plastic on the corner. I swung a right, drove around the block, and stopped. I took out the big bag of old food and when I had his attention put it down next to his pile. He came across the street, I backed away to my truck, and said, “Quieres comida?” Do you want food?

He hefted the heavy bag over his shoulder, walked off, and I drove the other way downtown.

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