Margaret (my wife) and I drove to Brown County before dawn today to spend our morning writing and hiking. On our way back, we stopped at the WalMart in Beech Grove to do a little Mother's Day shopping. (Nothing like the last minute, right?)
Anyway, as I got out of the car, a burly guy accosted me. He launched into a long and convoluted sob story involving his pregnant wife with a hurt foot, his two kids, the job he'd lost, and the application he'd put in at a homeless shelter. The upshot of it was that he wanted money, supposedly to pay for a hotel room for his family that night.
Now, I live in downtown Indianapolis, so I get panhandled pretty often--two or three times a week on average. Some of the panhandlers ask for money for gas--they claim to be stranded somehow. So I offer to buy them gas. Nobody has ever taken me up on that. Some of the panhandlers ask for money for bus tickets. So I offer to drive them wherever they need to go. One person has taken me up on that--we had a lovely conversation during our drive to Wheeler Mission. Some of the panhandlers ask for money for food. So I offer to buy them food. Twice that offer has been accepted. All the rest stomp off or make up a long, convoluted explanation about why they really need cash, not gas or transportation or food. I never give cash, because I don't care to support an alcohol or drug habit.
I was in a hurry--Margaret wasn't feeling well, and I wanted to get my Mother's Day gifts bought and delivered while it was still Mother's Day. So I kind of blew off the burly panhandler. He responded with a frustrated-sounding "God bless you."
I hurried into WalMart's garden center and picked out two orchids almost as lovely as the mothers I planned to give them to. On our way out of the parking lot, I mentioned the panhandler to Margaret.
"Yeah, I've been thinking about him," she said.
"What do you think?" I asked.
"What if he was telling the truth?"
We were a block down the street by this time. I pulled into the Lowe's parking lot and turned around to return to WalMart.
We found the panhandler one aisle over from where we'd been parked, begging from someone else. I pulled up and rolled down my window.
"What hotel are you staying at?" I asked.
"The Red Roof behind Steak 'n Shake," he replied.
"Where are your wife and kids?"
"Two rows over."
We drove in the direction he pointed out and found a very pregnant woman limping behind a double stroller that held two lovely little girls. We drove the mother and younger child to Red Roof while the father and older child walked with the stroller.
We paid for their room and gave them the leftovers from our lunch. They'll hear whether they got into the homeless shelter tomorrow. I left them with my phone number, just in case that doesn't work out.
It cost us about the same amount to give that family a place to spend the night as it did to buy the orchids for our mothers. But I think that family gave us a Mother's Day gift. As I sit in my comfortable home writing this blog post, I'm keenly aware of the sturdy roof over my head and the blessings that enabled us to acquire and keep it.
I hope that for some Mother's Day, someday, we can all give each other a gift: a country in which no mother or father has to beg in a WalMart parking lot to provide a safe place for their family to spend the night.