By Ed Friedman
He was going to be out there. Yup. The sun was out, and Fred would be out there among the mostly boarded-up stores in downtown Mt. Vernon, with his coffee cup begging for change. Technically, he wasn’t begging. He’d been a fixture in the doorway of the abandoned liquor store for so long, he didn’t even need to say anything. Whenever someone came near his spot, his arm shot out like it was mechanized. At the end of that arm, his cardboard coffee cup silently asked to be filled, or at least be given some additional weight with coins. His name wasn’t really Fred. It could have been. How would I know? But that’s how I thought of him. His long coat, weathered skin, and unkempt brown beard said “Fred” to me. His blue knit cap covered what could have been a head of hair, only revealing a few straggling strands.
A better person would have engaged him, found out his name, directed him to a shelter, or at the very least provided a meaningful greeting. But I’m not that person. I’m the person who for a year gave money to a panhandler who hung out near my last job, only to see him at the Galleria Mall, all spruced up, fitting a big screen TV in the trunk of a Cadillac El Dorado. I felt like a sucker.
Nevertheless, here I was, with a full-time job at the state unemployment office, having no trouble meeting my expenses, and coming face to face every day with someone who may have had a few bad breaks. But I didn’t want to get burned again as I had with the guy in the El Dorado. So, I devised ways to avoid Fred. My reasoning was, if I were to give him money, I’d feel foolish; if I didn’t, I’d feel bad about myself.
Eventually, I developed avoidance strategies, such as pretending I was on my cell phone or altering my stride so I could slip past while he solicited another pedestrian. These techniques became tiring, and, of course, made me feel worse, so to avoid him completely, I explored alternate routes to work, including walking around the entire circumference of Doyle Park, where I only had to avoid liquor bottles and garbage.
After days of pretending not to see Fred, I found an alley that would take me only two blocks out of my way. Wide enough for two people to walk through side by side, it stood between the back entrances of a block of retail stores and a chain-link fence, which kept an expanse of underbrush and tree stumps at bay.
One morning, I briskly walked down the newfound not-so-shortcut. Halfway down the alley, I discovered something worse than guilt—terror. An enormous snake blocked my path. The reptile was brown and slimy, and the way it lay all coiled up and alert convinced me it was about to attack. I had no idea if the snake was dangerous, poisonous, or had fangs. It didn’t matter, because I am patently terrified of snakes. Where this fear came from, I could not say, but I’ve always had it.
It’s not like I saw snakes every day in the city. The last time I encountered one was when I was seven years old and away at sleep-away camp. As a joke, while I was sleeping, one of my friends placed a snake in my bed. I woke up to feel it slithering up my leg. Ever since, I couldn’t even look at snakes behind glass at the natural history museum. They just creeped me out.
And now, the object of my fear was close enough to strike. Sweat made my palms slick as I backed away slowly, clutching the fence for something to hold on to. My heart beat faster, and I felt faint. To make matters worse, I desperately had to urinate.
I could either try to run past the snake or crawl back to my usual path. Except I couldn’t do either. Panic had rendered me immobile. I tried to scream to scare the snake away, but no sound came out. My brain could not formulate a coherent thought. God had clearly punished me for avoiding Fred.
After what seemed like an eternity, someone came up behind me. They brushed past me, and I saw it was Fred.
He looked from the snake to my face and sighed. He picked up a branch that had fallen from a tree on the other side of the chain-link fence. Calmly, he slid the stick underneath the creature, and in one smooth motion, tossed the reptile over the fence. The stick followed, and Fred continued down the alley.
“Thank you,” I croaked.
Fred, without turning around or stopping, raised his hand in acknowledgement.
When my breathing returned to normal, I started to think about Fred. Here was someone who helped a person he didn’t know and didn’t stop for any recognition or compensation. The very definition of The Good Samaritan. But beyond that, what was Fred’s story? Was he one of the people for whom one bad break sent his life spiraling downward? And if so, could one good break turn his misfortune around? I shouldn’t assume every person panhandling was like the guy with the El Dorado.
Maybe tomorrow I’d make a contribution. Maybe I’d attach my business card. Maybe I’d introduce myself and ask the guy his real name.