It was the stroller that caught my eye first as I exited the grocery store, my cart so heavy with food and supplies for my family that I could barely turn it. And from the stroller my eyes moved to the little girl’s legs peeking out from the seat. Then from the little girl feet to her mother sitting beside her, wearing jeans and a tank top, her dark, curly hair piled on top of her head in an attempt to seek some sort of relief from the Texas August heat.
Finally, as I pushed my cart past them, my gaze rested on the sign the mother held, as she simultaneously called out to me. Through the noise of the store’s alcove, I could only make out the words “help,” and “lost job.”
I stopped my cart next to her and searched my wallet for the change I knew wasn’t there. In this day and age, it’s a rare occasion that I actually have more than $.37 at any given time.
Panhandlers are a dime a dozen here in Austin. You’re likely to find one perched on just about every street corner during the day. I admit, I often hide behind my sunglasses and pretend to be busy with my phone if I’m caught at a stoplight next to one. I breathe a sigh of relief when the light turns green and I can drive off, escaping their pleading, sometimes judgmental stares.
But as I started loading up my big, comfortable SUV, something tugged at my heart. I viewed the bounty of food I was to able to take home to my family. Just because I didn’t have change didn’t mean that I couldn’t help this woman out.
I contemplated taking her a few oranges from the large box I had purchased. But why not take it one step further and go buy her some fresh fruit for her and her daughter, maybe throwing in a couple of bottles of cold water?
Tossing the rest of my groceries in the car, I quickly headed back up to the entrance, my mind going over the best options for my donation.
But she was gone. Vanished.
I approached a woman standing near the door, thumbing through her coupons. She hadn’t seen anyone.
Now I may be a little sleep deprived, but I know I didn’t imagine this woman and her little girl. It hadn’t even been five minutes, but she was nowhere to be found.
Feeling a little defeated, I walked back to my car, my heart still a little achey thinking of the pair. I pulled out of the parking lot, turning right towards the rest of the strip center instead of my normal left to the exit, and the way home. I was curious to see what else was in the shopping center. Turns out, not much.
My detour took me to a different exit out of the parking lot, and suddenly there she was! She had apparently been banished from the property by the store management. And I was pulling out right past her with no ability to stop without holding up traffic! Gah!
I pulled out into the road, turned the corner, and again entered the store’s parking lot, convinced that I was burning a week’s worth of gas in my determination to get to this woman, when it would have been so much easier just to stay the course and head home.
But my heart was telling me otherwise. My heart was telling me that out of all of the plentiful food I was hauling in my car, surely I could spare a few pieces of fruit.
I stopped close to their new spot, pulled out a few oranges and a couple of bananas from the back of my SUV, and walked over to the woman and her daughter. I didn’t have any change, but I hoped she could use the food. She thanked me and blessed me, her tired eyes not showing much emotion.
I knelt down to her little girl and offered her a smile. She couldn’t have been much younger than Rachel and Claire. She sat obediently in her stroller, her hair damp from sweat, a sullenness in her shy eyes. I said hello, and that I hoped she could eat the fruit. I didn’t know what else to say.
So I got back in my car and drove away. Away to my house with my food, my air conditioning, my family, and my “things” I am lucky to have.
I’ll admit, I wondered what people thought when they saw me giving that woman food. Helping her. Or to some, encouraging her panhandling. I wondered how many people rolled their eyes or muttered under their breath as they passed her, avoiding her gaze, not wanting to get involved?
I could have just driven home. I could have said, “Oh well.” I could have even said, “It’s not my problem.”
But how easily it was that I instantly pictured one of my own children in that stroller, sad, sweaty, and hungry. In need of help. Or just a little compassion.
You can call me a sucker if you want.
I’d give you an orange if you wanted one too.