Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Dude in Front of Trader Joe's

If and when I have kids I want to teach them to give money to the people who stand on the outside of grocery stores: the girl scouts selling cookies, the Santa Claus bell ringer, the homeless shelter volunteer. I want my kids to have a heart for people and not money.

I’ve heard that the things you practice yourself are the things your kids will most likely learn from you, so I decided it was time to start practicing. On the way into Trader Joe’s today, I remembered to grab a fistful of change and shove it in my pocket. It was probably only 80 cents, and I saw two opportunities as I approached the sidewalk: a woman with a homeless shelter money box and man with a sign that read, “Trying to get home. Please help. God bless.”

Without making up my mind about anything I made eye contact with the sign man and asked him what the deal was. He told me a very colorful story about how he was from West Virginia and had come out to California to find his lost father, and now he was trying to get back home. He said he had $30, and a ticket was $120. Believing not a word of it, I told him I didn’t have any cash, but that I’d get some juice for him from Trader Joe’s.

I really didn’t want to give him anything. But I reminded myself that I wanted to teach my kids that it’s not our place to judge. I even thought through a little speech to my imaginary youngsters about our actions versus God’s justice.

While I was trying to find shallots, a Trader Joe’s associate approached me. “Hey, I saw you talking to that man outside, and I was wondering, what’s his story?”

I explained, not without adding my own prefaces, “So he says,” and “Who knows what the real story is?” Several shoppers nearby added their two cents to the conversation too.

“I just never carry cash so I can’t give them anything.”

“That guy’s been sitting out there all week.”

I shrugged. “Who knows?” and dismissed myself to another part of the store after finding out that green onions are just as good as shallots. What is a shallot anyway?

In search for bulgur wheat, which I couldn’t pronounce and kept having to show the word on my shopping list to associates, I asked another store worker about the man.

“If you want my honest opinion,” he said. “And this isn’t trader Joe’s opinion or anything, but I think he’s a scam artist. That guy’s been sitting out there for a long time. He’s always clean-shaven. He always has a new shirt on. I’ve seen him come in here and pull out a wad of cash to buy things in here. He says he’s from Ontario, but I’ve seen his family come up here and ask him to come home: his mom and a little boy. But we can’t do anything about it, cause we don’t own the property. I mean the customers complain, I just say don’t give them anything.”

Great. So now what do I do? I picked up a bottle of juice and headed for the cash register rehearsing what I might say to the dude on the way out. So he’s a liar and he’s been taking advantage of people’s generosity. Sometimes I wish I were Jesus. He’d know exactly what to say. He could look that liar in the eyes and say, “Benjamin, go home to your mom, Bertha, and your brother Timmy and stop living the life of a crook.” Jesus would know what to do.

But I’m a little in the dark. So I take my grocery bag and juice, bypass the lady with the homeless coin collection box saying, “I don’t have any cash on me,” walk out to the guy, hand him the juice, and say, “Stop lying,” and walk away.

And after that the liar saw the light. He repented and stopped living in sin, and the shoppers at Trader Joe’s were forever free of his loitering!

Actually after I told him to stop lying, he looked at me and asked, “What kind of juice is it?” And because I had so rehearsed walking away after I pronounced those two words, I did, not even stopping to make sure he heard what I said.

And from all this, my imaginary kids learned how to keep their change in their pockets. A lesson well taught.