By the time the light changed, I changed

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She was standing at the bottom of a highway ramp, just under the overpass. At first, I didn’t know what she was, a girl – a guy, young – old. All I could see was a person holding a sign. I slowly pulled up beside her, being careful not to look in her direction. I stared at the red light in front of me.

I’ve lived in the city for almost two years now and seeing people in the streets with signs begging for money has become normal. I’ve seen scary looking people, drugged out people, lost people and people who didn’t look like they were struggling at all. I’ve seen young people and old people and even pregnant people. Every time, I did my best not to stare, not to make eye contact and I never gave anyone any money. But she was different.

She was holding her beggars sign in front of her face, so that all you could see was a mass of dirty blond dreadlocks. She wasn’t looking at me, so I decided to look at her. “Dreadlocks,” I thought and recalled the time my own son came home with dreadlocks. I remember confronting him and judging him and not understanding why anyone would want to have dreadlocks, I pleading with him to cut it.

“I’m not rebelling,” he said. “I’m not trying to do anything to you. This is not about you.” He pointed to his hair. “It’s my hair. It’s my life.”

I remember nodding along with him, and trying to listen to him, but still trying to make my own point. I told him to consider how people view people with dreadlocks. How people judge them.

“Like you,” he said. “I don’t care if you judge me. I don’t care if everyone judges me. It’s just hair!” He yelled at me.

“It’s just hair,” I thought to myself as I looked at her. “It’s just hair.” She was wearing brown overalls that hadn’t seen a washer in weeks, a raggedy winter hat and a pair of beat up work boots.

I took my foot off the brake and slowly eased forward, trying to see behind the sign, to see her face. That’s when I saw the book. She wasn’t holding up her beggars sign to cover her face in shame, which is what I thought, she was reading a book. A book!

An SUV had pulled up behind me and beeped its horn. I quickly looked up, thinking the light had changed. It hadn’t. He was trying to get the girls attention. He beeped again and she slowly looked over the top of her sign. I watched in my side mirror, as he waved bills at her. She ran to him, took the money and then walked back to her spot. She adjusted her sign, to cover her book, and resumed reading.

I grew up in Vermont, at a time when seeing homeless people was extremely rare. The only time I can remember ever seeing a homeless person, was when I was around eleven or twelve years old. The homeless guy was a local drunk, who, it turns out, wasn’t homeless, he only looked homeless and pan handled for beer money. I remember seeing him and feeling bad, and wanting to help. I think I had two dollars in my pocket and so I walked up to him and tried to give it to him. However, instead of taking my money he yelled at me. “I’m just an old drunk,” he said. “Don’t give your money to old drunks like me. Keep your stupid money.” Then he stormed off.

I remember telling my dad about the homeless guy and about him yelling at me when I tried to give him money. He sat me down and lectured me about drunks and drug addicts and homeless people. He told me that I should never give money to a homeless person. That all they would use it for was drugs and booze. And so I listened. For more than 30 years, I listened. But she was different.

She wasn’t a drug addict. She wasn’t a drunk. She wasn’t a vagrant or a violent degenerate. She was someone who needed help. A girl, standing on the street corner, hoping people wouldn’t judge her because of her dirty overalls, or her long blond dreadlocks, or beat up shoes.

I glanced up at the light, knowing it was going to turn green any second and started fumbling in my pockets.

“Hey,” I said rolling down my window. “Hey!”

She looked up and smiled. I reached out handing her money.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said and the light changed.

-Ralph Peterson is a Syndicated Columnist and author of the book, Managing When No One Wants To Work (Four-Nineteen Press, 2014). Contact him at Ralph@RalphPeterson.com.

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