Jeff was honest. I liked that about him. That, and the fact that he wasn’t asking me for money.
That’s not par for the course, because Jeff was a panhandler.
The grocery store near my apartment is a prime target for panhandlers. It’s close enough to campus to draw a ton of students, especially on a colder, rainier night like this one, when lazy co-eds want to get quickly in and out with their supplies of eggs, milk, and varying degrees of recreational beverages. I’m guessing it takes less work to hassle college students for money (since we’re supposed to be idealistic and compassionate and all), especially when the environment itself is working in your favor. But still, you hear a lot of crazy schemes, strange stories and such.
This night, I had seen Jeff standing in the parking lot and decided to go ahead and make the first move. After introducing myself, I asked Jeff straight up if he wanted anything, like a warm beverage. He said a fifth of vodka would be fine.
“Um, I don’t know that this store sells vodka,” I told him.
“It’s okay. I already got a beer in my coat.”
He patted a bulge in his jacket, smiling. It was honesty!
I liked this.
Really, all it seemed like Jeff wanted was a little conversation himself. So we chatted in the light drizzle about some pleasantries: our names, where we were from, the weather (naturally). Jeff had a strange, square-looking bulge in his sleeve that didn’t look like beer, so I asked him about that too. He grinned proudly. It was his Scofield Reference Bible, he told me, complete with his name embossed on the cover in gold-stamped ink. It was the one thing he kept on him at all times.
This really piqued my interest. Jeff was openly a Christian, but also openly (he said this himself), a drunk. Truth be told, I don’t that I would have denied him a beer if he’d really wanted one. I was working hard to reconcile this in my mind when we got interrupted:
“Scuse me. Me and my wife just had a bad fight, and I was wonderin’… could you help me get her somethin’ to eat?”
I turned. Another panhandler had arrived. And y’know, I’d heard this story before.
If Jeff was upfront, this interloper was, more likely than not, scamming. The two of us had actually met the month prior, where he’d used that exact same scenario on me. Call me obtuse, but I’m guessing if you have a fight with your wife, repentantly feeding her might work once… but twice? In fact, if this was the same guy I’d shopped with a month or so ago, it was looking like his marriage was in pretty sore shape. (Or his wife needed to practice moderation. One of the two.)
I couldn’t remember his name, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t remember mine. All I knew is that last time, we’d gone to the convenience store across the street and proceeded to buy a combination of necessary goods and ice cream. Necessary goods, things to live off of… that’s fine. You’ve got my dollars; here, let’s get Supermarket Sweep on this!
But ice cream?
Frivolous ice cream?
Conversation now interrupted, the new guy looked at Jeff, his face betraying some subtle embarrassment. For all he knew, Jeff was already trying to scam me, too. And I think there’s a code about this stuff: namely, don’t try to horn in on my panhandle. It’s a minor faux-pas.
The interloper reached out his hand. “What’s up, John?”
“Jeff.” Jeff corrected him.
(I felt less bad about forgetting the dude’s name.)
“So, um,” the interloper said, turning back to me, “I was wonderin’ if maybe you could help me get some ice cream, or some bread or something.”
I considered the weather. “I mean, it’s pretty cold outside. You sure you want ice cream? How about I get you something more… necessary? Like eggs, or bread, or meat?”
“Yeah. That’d be fine. How ’bout some hamburger meat?”
“You sure? I’ll get you some hamburger meat, if you need it.” (I made sure to emphasize “need.” He was so lucky; thank God that I was here to lecture a panhandler on his dietary choices.)
He thought for a second.
“Naw, get the ice cream. My wife likes Butter Pecan.”
I looked at Jeff, trying to apologize with my gaze. “I’ll be right back.”
After scooping up what I’d come for anyway– Ramen noodles, milk, cereal, and extra-fiber bread — I paused by the frozen goods case in the store to check my options. I immediately crossed off the gallon-sized ice creams — my generosity had limits.
The pints were more promising. I landed on the low-fat store brand, cheap as all get-out and sure to save some needless calories. This would help both of us out, I figured. I save some money while doing good in the world, and my beneficiary gives his wife a healthy incarnation of let’s-make-up-here’s-processed-sugar. Surely she’d be grateful that he was so considerate of her weight.
I paid and walked back out. I gave my friend his ice cream, telling him why I specially selected it and only it. He eyed the bag in his hand.
Then he walked off.
With the ice cream.
Frivolous ice cream.
I turned back to Jeff. “Can I give you a ride somewhere?”
We ended up hanging out for the next thirty minutes or so, taking refuge in my car and chatting before Jeff got back out into the cold. He told me jokes, told me stories. He told me how his sister was convinced he was going to die somewhere, forgotten, and how he wasn’t too sure she’d be wrong. His liver was shot. They kept in touch once a week anyway.
The whole time, he didn’t really ask me for one thing. Just the pleasure of staying in the car and soaking up the heater for a few short minutes. It was a cool connect. Me and a self-professed drunk, free of pretense, parked at an abandoned gas station. When I wasn’t processing the possibility of me getting unexpectedly shanked, I was enjoying myself. I was laughing.
And then he had to get out to go pee, walking into the lit gas station next door. We said goodbye. We shook hands. And though it was a fleeting moment, I felt like we connected.
I haven’t seen either Jeff or the other guy since. But I know that for one night, I felt like more of a friend to an honest bum than one with a sob-story. And it’s because I couldn’t pity Jeff.
It’s because I respected him.
I’m still trying to reconcile that.