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Essay: Cold Conviction

The recent spate of frigid weather took me back to a blisteringly cold day last winter when I was leaving an office in a high rise downtown.

As I passed a young man in a first-floor corridor, which contained some retail shops and a café, he turned and said, “Do you have 75 cents you could let me have? I’m trying to catch the bus.”

I was struck by his face. Angelic, is what came to mind. Round, sweet, boyish, not yet hardened by life’s vagaries and injustices. His eyes were glistening and he flashed an expectant half smile.

I gave the stock answer I had honed during the many years I lived and worked in Los Angeles where panhandling is ubiquitous. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any money with me.”

He turned and walked away, a knit cap pulled low over his ears and bundled in so many layers he waddled.

I was shocked as I hurried toward the parking structure.

“Why did I say that?” I wondered as shame crept up my neck. “What is wrong with me? Seventy-five cents! That’s all he asked for. Seventy-five cents.”

I kept on going, my legs working like sticks of wood.

“He was even specific about what he wanted it for,” an inner voice chided.

I had the money. Maybe not the exact change he asked for, but a few dollar bills and I could have easily given him one. I still could. I could run back and do it. But, no, that would expose my fib.

But isn’t that the ploy? another voice chimed in. Seventy-five cents from you, 50 cents from somebody else. It adds up. Some panhandlers do pretty well. And it’s a lot easier than getting a real job.

What? the first voice shot back. You think he’d rather be out here in this god-awful cold than filling orders in a burger joint, or that it’s easier to beg money from strangers than to pick up trash dropped by shoppers? Did he really look like he was doing pretty well?

Pushing through the parking structure door, I thought about the great scold I am about people in this country not wanting to take care of others, about those who disparage social-safety nets and say we shouldn't be a nanny state. Was being a hypocrite any better?

With my car in sight, I remembered a plastic bag of quarters in the glove compartment for parking meters and road tolls.

No matter what, I decided, that man could use seventy-five cents a lot more than I would miss it.

With that bag of quarters, I could save face and help him with bus fare at the same time. But would I be able to find him? I decided to try.

Bag in hand I hustled back into the building and scanned the long corridor stretching a city block ahead. No sign of a dark waddling figure. I pressed on, knowing that the end the corridor intersected with another one on the left.

I reached it and turned left, wondering how far I was willing to go before I would give up, when I spotted him a couple hundred yards ahead.

I quickened my pace and finally drew close enough to say, “Excuse me.”

He turned, surprised.

“I’d like you to have this,” I said and handed him the bag. He looked even more surprised. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I turned and left, feeling good. Mission accomplished.

On the way back to my car, though, my step slowed as an old poem called “Convicted” popped into my head. I had written it years earlier after passing day after day a small patch of green near my workplace in Los Angeles where homeless men sat or stretched out in the warming sun. It goes like this:

I saw him there in grease-stained jeans, With grizzled chin and gaunt cheeks creased. He rummaged through the garbage can With hunger shaking at his hand. Man, how glad I am no one required I take a stand. Oh, I could have handed him some bread. I had the dough. But who’s to know he wouldn’t blow it on Jim Beam Or extra smokes. No, I wash my hands of that bad blood. The street lights wink. I think by dawn his form should fade.

Many dawns have passed since that day last winter, but that young man’s form has yet to fade.

Lake Effect essayist Jerianne Hayslett is a writer and former journalist and court information officer. She lives in South Milwaukee and is the author of the book Anatomy of a Trial: Public Loss, Lessons Learned from The People vs. O.J. Simpson.