the alms bowl.

I am close to an exceptional woman that also happens to be a santera. One day she described certain instructions received at a misa, which is a mass to commune with the spirits of the saints. The message (and I’m paraphrasing, as this was years ago) was that she needed to keep an eye out for a homeless man begging on the street. When she came across this man, whoever he was, she must give him something—anything, a couple of crumpled bills, whatever change was in her purse. That beggar would be the spirit of a particular saint in an earthly body, no matter how dirty and on the fringe of society that body seemed. It would not be wise to ignore him.

I’m not sure how she interpreted this message, but something about it has been nagging at me all these years. The way the saint was disguised as something so common yet almost invisible in our insistent ignoring of this class of human. I took it to mean, in a literal translation, that this particular saint had a message or blessing to hand out and she would miss out on the bounty if she wasn’t careful.

However, other thoughts kept swirling in my mind. Was this a lesson in inferiority/superiority? Was this saint a symbol of all the souls we ignore or marginalize in every aspect of our lives?

About a month ago I was driving my parents somewhere. There is a particular intersection in my city that, especially in warmer months, is a popular spot for down-on-their-luck folks begging for a buck or two. That day found me at the front of the line; a man, older, weatherworn, held a sign with an imploring message scrawled across it in heavy black marker. Without even thinking about it, I reached for my wallet, then looked over at my mother and father—they already had money in their hands. We handed it all over to the man and he thanked us profusely, a big smile on his face, reaching all the way to his eyes. Now, my parents aren’t rich and all they have done in life is give and give and give. It’s second nature to them. There was little or no judgement; they simply believed it was the right thing to do. My feelings are more complicated.

I know many people that refuse to hand out money for a variety of legitimate reasons: they work hard for it while this person simply stands on a street corner; it will only be used for drink or drugs; it’s perpetrating a flawed and fucked-up system. (Yes, maybe, and probably.) Regardless, they are proud of their life choices and consequent success, especially if they recognize a bit of themselves in those that beg. If they are not proud or successful, then it’s an easy step to rationalize that panhandlers shouldn’t expect handouts for simply standing there, waiting for someone to feel sorry for them, while they keep on trucking at life.

I get it, but for me, it’s not about that. It’s about the energy of giving without malice or expecting any kind of return. It’s most likely why I’m not in banking, but there’s something about just giving willy-nilly, without regard for the why and how of it. Maybe a saint lies behind those dull eyes, maybe not. If you give or deny you’re taking the same chance: either you ignore an opportunity to truly help someone that needs it or you assist a lost, dark soul in his or her downward spiral. In each case it could be the opposite. It’s a total crapshoot.

I choose to take the guesswork out of it and pay up. A few dollars here and there won’t ruin me. Then the energy and message I put out in this world errs on the side of that golden, fickle mistress: “good.” The bad’ll get you anyway, kids.

I never found out if my friend found her homeless saint. I hope he’s not waiting on a Brooklyn street corner somewhere, sucking on a glowing cigar, biding his time…

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