"Excuse me sir, do you have 50 cents?"
She didn't really look at me, just noticed that my boots had stopped next to her. Something stationary in the flow of bodies stepping around her and her wheelchair.
"...just 50 cents more and I can buy a sandwich."
Her request was quiet, if I hadn't stopped I wouldn't have even have heard her.
She didn't know what my answer would be but I did. See, I had already walked by her once.
I was transferring between buses and from a distance I saw her; a lump in a wheelchair, covered in blankets with one leg stuck straight out. As I drew closer two things stuck out to me; one, how desperately thin her one leg was and two, the bright purple Converse running shoe perched out on her foot like a flag. Who would wear bright purple runners when they aren't able to walk?
As I turned the corner I stopped a brief moment and looked back at her. She was old, frail looking and far too thin, her gnarled hands carefully counting the change inside a ratty-looking change purse. The contrast to the purple shoe was a strong one but in that moment I felt that I understood. She could see the bright, young looking shoe and it made her happy.
I walked on to my bus stop; #3 bus in nine minutes.
I looked back down the block where I could still see her one leg sticking out with that bright Converse shoe.
#3 bus in eight minutes.
Like many I often debate whether to give money to people on the street presenting themselves as in need. I've given money to an apparently homeless man and watched from my rear view mirror as he handed over his collection of cash to a drug dealer. It just seems simpler to not give money and support homeless shelters and charities that work for the homeless. After all, one doesn't want to support an addict's drug habit, right?
#3 bus in seven minutes.
That shoe was still out there like a flag and in a moment I made a decision. I didn't care what that woman chose to spend her money on. She was suffering and even if I only brought her a short respite from it, I intended to give her that. I reached in my pocket. I had a ten and a five, agonized briefly and folded the five crisply, small so it fit inside my hand.
She was waiting for my answer but her gaze didn't rise to meet mine. I finally replied.
"Sorry, don't have 50 cents, but here's five bucks." I smiled and pressed the folded bill into her hand.
Her gaze snapped up to mine and she stared at me in amazement. "Oh THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!" she said, her face breaking into a gigantic crooked smile.
I turned away because suddenly I felt ashamed I hadn't given her the ten instead.
I walked back to my bus stop and waited. The purple Converse bounced and came wheeling around the corner and she lurched herself into a Tim Horton's [coffee and sandwich shop] that I hadn't noticed.
Five minutes later she was back out, a bag in her lap and another friendly stranger pushing her wheelchair across the busy intersection. She turned to see me, waved, and when I waved back she blew me kisses. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. I still felt ashamed I hadn't given her enough for two or three sandwiches.
So here's the question and why I wrote all this. In this case it's easy to say I did a good thing... but if she had bought a bottle of vodka with the money would I have done a bad thing? As citizens of this world is it our responsibility to judge or control how someone relieves their suffering? Or is it our responsibility to help reduce their pain, in any way we can?