Every street corner is more or less the same. They are the crossroads between where we are going and where we have been. The paths of others are layered across it. They are decorated in flowers, rocks, and fifty shades of concrete. There may be a light, a newspaper, or a marker-smudged sign with human hands upon it.
The signs are a barrier between those that hold them and those that fiddle with the radio in an attempt to avoid eye contact. Even the best of us find it hard to read every word, every time. It is hard to look into the face of need when we all need something.
The sign is a humble invitation to human contact between those that lack it and those that take it for granted. It is an opportunity for small moments of pity and respect, civility and kindness. A lot can happen at a red light.
We sat in the car with the windows down. It was a beautiful blue-skied day, and the breeze from the hills felt vaguely of the sea. It danced loosely across the salt of our thinly layered sweat, and it lingered soft and cool for a moment as if thinking about home. Then it carried on to woo the next in line, leaving memories and taking parts with it. A blink. A breath. A whisper.
We were leaving a store full of red shirts, value, and everything. Our bags were full and my wallet was empty. I had nothing in my pocket but a collection of plastic cards that owed more than I have and a balance that was anything but.
The breeze danced in my window, spun me around, tickled the nose of one boy, then the other, and flew out toward the man that stood there waiting. He smiled beneath a skin taut with sun and a layer of sweat much heavier than mine. His glance fell down, past the cardboard sign in his hands, to the grass beneath his feet and the child that sat quietly upon it. The breeze rolled from father to son and the smile went with it.
“Why is that boy there?” asked my youngest son from his spot in the backseat. His window was down, too, and his words were loud and carried on the wind.
The man kept his gaze to the ground and the boy looked at something important in the opposite direction. We were at a stop sign and there were no cars behind us.
My reaction in such situations, when a child’s innocence tends to jump from one side of a socially awkward bridge to the other, is usually alarm and quick words of quiet, something that surely embarrasses us both, but instead I took the man’s invitation.
To be clear, this isn’t meant to suggest that I am noble, doing the right thing, or any sort of action that merits acknowledgement beyond those involved, but rather a reminder about how much we all share and to suggest that we shouldn’t need signs that confound our attentions.
I could be that man. Any of us could. As it is I have been barely getting by for years—I went from making a very good living to making nothing, and now, thanks to a writing degree and access to the internet, I am making just enough to supplement my wife’s income so that we don’t go under. In fact, a few years ago we found ourselves having serious talks about what we feared was inevitable. We didn’t have many options, and we started to prepare for the worst. It scared the hell out of us.
The man on the street corner, the man that could have been me, was equal parts proud and humiliated as he leaned in the window that I am lucky to have, and answered:
“No, of course not. Change is very much appreciated.”
It was all I had and I gave him all of it.
“Why did you give that man money?” asked my oldest son from his spot in the backseat.
“Because he’s a daddy,” replied his brother.
The man’s eyes met mine, and one of us nodded and then the other. There was nothing left to say.
As we pulled away I watched the rear-view mirror and a fading street corner looking more or less like any other: a slab of concrete, a slice of shade, and a small, smiling boy held in the hands of a man where a sign used to be.