This is the story of one of my epic failures as a person.
See, sometimes I can be such a jerk.
I’m not admitting to anything heinous and/or illegal. I’ve never killed a puppy (though one hamster and a series of goldfish did meet untimely and unfortunate demises), I didn’t cheat on my SATs, and I haven’t had so much as a parking ticket in 15 years.
Hell, I barely even speed, and everyone speeds.
So while we’ve established that I’m not a hardened criminal, let’s go ahead and establish my jerkiness once and for all: I refused to give money to an old, crippled, blind nun sitting outside some sort of children’s home in Mexico.
I am loath to call it an orphanage, because that sounds just so much worse, and since it’s my blog and I am uncertain of the familial status of said children, we will be calling it a children’s home.
I’m not making this up—she really was blind, crippled, and old. Her joints were gnarled, her face wrinkled. The sparse hair of her brows was snow white, and her legs were shriveled up and useless. A little kid stared at me through the bars of the place with huge, dark eyes. When the nun asked me for money, I looked into her opaque eyes and said no, and then pretended I didn’t understand. At the time, I didn’t even feel bad—I was so obliviously selfish that it didn’t occur to me to feel bad. The nun asked me again, this time motioning to the bag in my hands—asking me for food, I suppose (my Spanish is quite wretched)—and again I refused.
I refused, even with the little kid staring at me, as I stood there holding a box of Fruit Loops, of all things, five bucks burning a hole in my pocket. I could have handed it over to them, gone on my merry way and not thought another thing about it, but I had spotted a street vendor on the beach, knew he had a moonstone ring I wanted to buy, and was pretty certain I could talk him down to the five dollars I had left.
So I said no, and walked off with my Fruit Loops and five dollars in my pocket.
The guilt didn’t even hit me until weeks later, but I felt like shit when it finally did. My friend and I were playing a morbid game—a game for the really bad drivers of the world—I had named “How many demerit points?” For instance, how many points would you get if you hit a fire hydrant? How many points would it be if you hit an Elvis impersonator, and would you get more points if you hit fat Elvis or skinny Elvis? ** (According to the rules of the game, more points were awarded for fat Elvis, because even though skinny Elvis would be faster, who knew how much damage a rhinestone-studded jumpsuit would actually cause? I grant you, running down Elvis seems improbable, but I live in Nevada, where running over an Elvis impersonator is actually a distinct possibility.) And then, one afternoon as we drove through downtown, we were trying to figure out what the mother lode of points would be when my friend (the driver) finally came up with it:
How many points for an old, blind nun running from a burning orphanage with a child in her arms?
And I thought to myself: How many points if you just refuse to give them money? And what if she’s crippled too? And what if said orphan is looking at you while you refuse to donate?
Oh, God, and what about the damn Fruit Loops?
For six months, I was certain that I was going to Hell, even though I don’t necessarily believe in it. I had too many demerits on the license of my life, and there was no taking another test: I’d already failed. So I volunteered in a dementia ward and entertained old men who would grab my seventeen year-old ass as I walked by. Instead of hauling off and slapping them, I would simply smile, hoping maybe understanding gentleness in the face of such boorish behavior would atone for my mistake.
Incidentally, that only seemed to encourage the behavior. I got comments like, “Hot damn, you’re pretty,” (aww, so sweet), followed by little squeezy motions at my boobs and a slap on the ass. I learned never to put my back to an old man (my butt’s kind of hard to miss, even with the delayed reflexes of the elderly, though some of them are really quite fast). It’s a skill that served me well when I worked in the nursing home.
But I digress.
Right after I graduated from high school, I went to San Francisco for a couple of days with a few friends of mine. We went into a little deli to get some lunch, and decided to walk around Union Square for a while and eat our sandwiches before going home. And as I was walking down the street, I saw this guy—a vagrant, to be nice about it—sitting on the sidewalk, holding a sign that read:
“Hungry. Please help.”
And at that moment, I saw an image of myself, refusing to give money to a blind nun outside of a Mexican children’s home while I clutched a box of Fruit Loops to my chest. I saw the nun’s nebulous eyes, her shriveled legs, her gnarled hands. I looked down at the moonstone ring I wore, the thing I just had to have so much I refused to help someone who actually needed it, a tangible reminder of my failure as a human being. So I gave the guy the other half of my sandwich.
“Hey, what the hell is this?” he asked.
“It’s a sandwich.”
“I ain’t blind. Why you giving it to me?” He didn’t say it, but he may as well have added, because I certainly heard it: You stupid bitch.
“Your sign says you’re hungry, and that’s all I have. I thought you might want it. It’s not old. I just got it.” I felt my color rise, my heart racing as I tried to explain my honorable intentions, yet feeling miserably stupid about it.
He looked at the sandwich, then to me, and then he looked to small group of business people who were staring at us. “Thanks,” he mumbled. And then he gave me a look that said something quite the opposite.
This wasn’t exactly the reaction I had been expecting. I hadn’t anticipated feeling embarrassed and ashamed. “You’re welcome,” I said stiffly, and then I left, running to catch up with my friends.
I caught up with them at the corner. “Why’d you do that?” my friend asked me, genuinely perplexed, and I felt bad she seemed so confused I would actually do something nice. I’m not that bad a person. My teachers always loved me, and I donated my time to work with the elderly. I read books to little kids after school.
Goddammit, I’m sweet.
Well, sweetish anyway.
I crossed my arms and shrugged. “I don’t know. He looked hungry, is all.”
A handsome man in an expensive suit looked at me sympathetically. “You know, you shouldn’t give to these people sitting on the street: they make professions out of it. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile,” he said, and I was unable to say anything in response. I’ve never been quick on my feet with the witty retort, and why should I have to defend myself for doing something nice, anyway? We looked at one another for a long second, and when the light changed, and we started across the street, he hurried in front of us, a man with someplace important to go, something important to do. “He’s just a bum.” he called over his shoulder as I stared at his back.
Hey, it was a nice back in an expensive suit. Of course I’m going to stare.
I looked over at the guy who now had possession of my sandwich—roast beef and provolone on Dutch crust, my favorite—just in time to see him toss it into the trash. Hungry, my sweet ass. I was tempted to go over to him and bawl him out for throwing away my sandwich: I was still hungry, and I only had twenty bucks to last me until I got home—and that included gas money.
And then I remembered the nun. So that one guy didn’t appreciate my sandwich; in the end, did it really matter? I wasn’t going to starve to death. And even though he didn’t appreciate it, it still proved I was not an entirely heartless jerk.
Not all the time, anyway.
** No nuns, fire hydrants or Elvis impersonators were harmed during the course of this game. It was entirely hypothetical. We didn’t actually try to run anyone/anything over, though I did once crash into a supermarket. But that was an accident, and a story for another day, and I didn’t get any points for it.