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Where Are the Homeless When You Need 'Em?

We weren’t trying to save the world. Let’s face it: A hot beverage and warm brownies are token gestures, incapable of righting economic inequities or even staving off cold and hunger for more than an hour.

We only wanted one of those “shiny moments” that Oprah talks about, when you get to feel good for a second just by making someone else feel good.

Is that so wrong?

It’s a family ritual of ours. We bake treats, fill travel mugs with hot cider and pile into the car to tour the town’s most dazzling holiday light displays. Last year, while stopped for gas, we noticed a homeless man. It was biting cold that night. And as we sat in our steamy sedan with the heater blasting and the radio blaring “Jingle Bell Rock,” we felt sick to our stomachs — and not just from the syrupy cider and peppermint brownies congealing in our guts.

Here we were headed out to celebrate the frivolity of the season, the shallow glee of ooh-ing over twinkle-lit porches and inflatable snowmen grinning from immaculate lawns. And here was this guy hugging himself on a sidewalk to keep the shivers from setting in. We couldn’t help feeling we were missing the point.

We poured the fella some cider, forked over our brownies and bid him a warm and comfortable Christmas — which may well have been pointless. But it felt good.

This year, we decided to do it again, only the guy wasn’t at the gas station. We drove around looking for someone who could use a hot drink, a warm gesture and a plate of gooey holiday cheer. But we couldn’t find anyone. Not at the train station, on the freeway offramps, in De la Guerra Plaza. We reluctantly asked parking lot attendants: “Um, where are all the homeless people?”

Frustrated at our inability to do a good deed, we began arguing. And I’m not proud of the way our bickering illustrated a deep disconnection with life beyond our cozy middle-class existence.

Losing patience, we broadened our recipient criteria. Did the person have to actually be homeless, or was it enough to just look poor? Or sad? Or, you know, unstylish?

“There’s one! I’m pulling over.” “No, that guy’s listening to an iPod!” “Well … everyone has an iPod these days, that doesn’t mean he isn’t hungry.” “Come on, Dad, just give it to him, the cider’s getting cold.”

“There! That lady’s just sitting on that bench.” “That’s a bus stop, honey. She’s waiting for a bus.” “Well, that can’t be pleasant …”

We were about to give up when we spotted him walking up State Street. A man in a hat and thin jacket, carrying a giant bag of … something. Was it recyclables plucked from trash cans?

“Excuse me, sir?” my husband hollered out the window. “Would you like some hot cider and brownies?”

He approached our car and the quizzical look on his face convinced us we’d made a terrible mistake and that he was about to tell us, as nicely as possible, that he wasn’t homeless and that his bag was filled with Christmas presents he had just purchased from Saks Fifth Avenue on an Amex Platinum card.

But no.

“The only problem,” he said, “is that I don’t have a cup.”

“You do now,” I said, handing him a travel mug.

“Oh, wow!” he said. “Really? Thanks a lot!”

It didn’t change the world. We can’t even claim to have learned much from the experience. But I’ll say this: As far as shiny moments go, I’ll take the gleam of a stranger’s smile over a glowing lawn reindeer any day.

Published inColumnsParenting

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