Driving and Biking in the Big City

Buck a bum policy disgustingly becomes hug a bum

with 2 comments

Flash forward to my move to Houston where the homeless dominate many of the main arteries of the city. Even when I taught at University of Houston, I would drive by panhandlers on the street corners. That was before Hurricane Katrina and the explosion in homeless folks, many from New Orleans where the poor were driven out by  flood waters.

At University of Houston, I established my “buck a bum” policy. That sounds harsh, but, as I said, I have a love for all humankind and a tender heart for the homeless.  But as a writer and old police reporter, I can’t help but go for the word play and alliteration. Thus, I always kept – still keep — $1 in my car’s console to dole out to the many homeless folks that I encounter. No more, no less. That way, I have plenty of money for the next guy and can somewhat assuage the critics who believe I’m contributing to the liquor supply for the poor guy or occasional woman. One regular at UH could count on his $4 from me every week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, coming and going. He’d meet me at my car some days.

Once, my “buck a bum” policy went out the door when I came across a woman who – when she turned her body sideways – was incredibly pregnant. I emptied my purse and then all the money my elementary age son happened to have on him at the time. We both remember my reaction as crazed, depressed and unyielding. I gave her all we had and I’m sure it still wasn’t much more than $40.

Occasionally, I go through bouts of other contributions to the routine homeless I see – bag lunches, McDonald’s coupons, peanut butter crackers, apples. I once gave a homeless guy an egg McMuffin I’d just bought for myself. God was watching me stop at that McDonald’s.

Most recently, I’ve taken to giving away umbrellas. This started one rainy day in the medical center when a mom and her young daughter were lost and confused in the pouring rain. I pulled up and gave them my umbrella. After that experience, I replenished my supply and would hand them out on rainy days or when it looked like it might be threateningly appropriate. I once chased down a lady, attempting to give her an umbrella, and I think she thought I was the crazy one. She said she had a perfectly good umbrella, and I begged to differ. It had two of its extensions totally broken so that her umbrella teepee was pretty one-sided. However, after I seemed to frighten her, I went back to cash handouts.

Thus, I’m on the outskirts of Houston one day when I run into this same guy who I just saw in the Mercedes in my neighborhood.

I love Houston and always feel safe, but it’s a big city with big city problems and some areas have neighborhoods where crime is more frequent. Of course, the medical center is one of those areas, so I’ve gotten comfortable on my usual streets. Plus, as an old police reporter, I’m always conscious of my surroundings and stay aware of any trouble that may be happening near enough to me for me to be drawn into the fray.

But, on this day, I needed gas pretty desperately and had pulled off the freeway and into an unfamiliar gas station in a neighborhood that I thought would be fine. In any case, I was going to mind my own business, get my gas and get going. I’m pretty tall, definitely athletic and not what the cops consider “a victim personality.” I checked my supplies before I got out of the car — keys, credit card. Then, I locked the door behind me and went matter-of-factly about my business.

That’s when I saw this same originally homeless man in the area around the gas station. Like I said, I’m always giving a little handout to the homeless so he didn’t stop me from going about my business. I’m pumping my gas when I realize he’s heading my way. What can I do but stand there, gas nozzle in hand, and wait.

He pushed his empty grocery cart up to me and started his spiel. I remember him but not his story. And the only reason I remember him is that I thought he looked a bit like a leprechaun. This may even be why I remembered him so clearly when I saw him in my neighborhood about six months later. He was a little guy, much shorter than me and with red hair and a red beard. If he’d have had on green clothes and a green hat, it would have been laughable.

Then, his shopping cart was empty and relatively free of rust. I’ve seen a few homeless folks with shopping carts and have made a bit of an inventory of what folks believe is essential to their lives. Clothes, blankets, empty water jugs, smokes. My mom was the same, collecting and keeping the weirdest stuff that was vital to her existence.

This particular homeless man was pushing a cart but there was nothing he’d collected as yet. I remember thinking he was new to the homeless business or his cart would not have been empty. That maybe he couldn’t pass up the good luck of finding an empty cart. Whatever, he didn’t worry me.

Well, here I am, standing there with the gas nozzle in my hand when he came up for a donation. I immediately reached for my dollar that I had put in my pocket beside my always present pencil. I handed him the donation, took his “God bless”and then realized I wouldn’t be able to get back into my car until the tank was full. I had to finish my transaction at the pump. Typically, when I give a handout, I’m careful to roll the window down only as much as I need to and be prepared to skedaddle if anyone looks like trouble.

In this particular case, I felt like I could take this guy if he made any strange moves, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to talk to him. But that’s exactly what happened. He continued to stand by me and try to talk to me.

Remember, at the time, I’m thinking this is totally a legitimate homeless person and that I’m just caught outside of my car, so I attempted to make small talk, too, and act like I spoke to homeless folks every day. After all, I think to myself, this may be this man’s only human contact in weeks, maybe months.

We’re close to an overpass, so I’m considering asking him if that’s where he’s staying when I decided to stick to the safe topic of the weather. So, I’m standing outside my car, having given $1 to a homeless man and having a pretty weird conversation as the fuel trickles into my vehicle.  Painfully slowly.

Finally, I’m done and I move to get back in the car. That’s when, my new leprechaun friend says, “I hate to ask you this, but I’d really like a hug.”

I’m so surprised and still moving for the car door that I don’t say anything, don’t do anything. I swear. I gave no consent. But he quickly grabbed me, hugged me and, then, oh my God, gave me a kiss on the cheek before I could even react. Ewwwww!! Did I mention I’m a germ-a-phobe? I was so icked out and yet tried to remain polite. Who am I anyway? Always polite no matter the situation. Even when a homeless guy gives me a smack on the cheek. Get over your manners! Get out of here!

In any case, my buck a bum policy had accidentally turned into a hug a bum policy and I was forever changed. And, in fact, the spot on my cheek throbbed like a toxic leak for the rest of the drive home and until I could give it a good scrubbing.


Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

March 1, 2014 at 3:49 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. That’s a shame that he was scamming people, but at least you now know that he couldn’t have been too filthy when he kissed you!


    March 1, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: