Their faces and signs change day to day, but the spot is the same. They stand on the roadside of I-189 where it meets a stoplight on Route 7 in Burlington, Vermont. There are common characteristics: crumpled or dirty clothing, a tin can or open hand for the money, black script on cardboard with the shorthand pleas of humanity: “Anything will help. God Bless.”; “Single mother with children to feed.”; “No work. No food. Please help.” The particulars are muted and/or striking: intense scars from burns layered in pinks and mottled purples, long hair and a beard, a vagueness in the eyes that have perhaps seen too much already for one lifetime.
An offering of money is only possible from the exit of I-189, the spot chosen for high-volume traffic, and so it is only from this direction that the concrete dilemma ensues: To give or not to give. Or how to give. I feel all the cultural messages and awkward ambivalence rise up as my car approaches. The Guilianiesque shadow of “Don’t give; you’ll only encourage the begging.”; “They’ll use it for drugs or alcohol; you’re only feeding an addiction.”; “They need to take personal responsibility.” All of those insidious cultural commentaries that may or may not have anything to do with the individual standing beside me on the road. I feel the ready rationale: “Well, we give money to social agencies that provide services to people in need. That’s a better way of giving to these individuals in the long term.” But whatever the spin, I’m still sitting in my car with a view toward somebody’s life that has gone awry. We are, until the traffic light changes, two people playing out a moment. One of acknowledgement or dismissal, offering or withholding. Because in reality, it doesn’t matter whether I’m giving them a dime or a dollar. These people won’t scoff at any offering. So it’s extremely clear: It’s not about the money. It’s a measure of something else.
Which brings me to something more hidden and visceral: the unspoken fears, aversions, and embarrassing thoughts. Who are these people? What has happened in their lives that has brought them here? Could I catch something if our fingers touch in the exchange? Could this happen to me or someone I love? What brings people to the hard edges of a life and keeps them standing there, asking and waiting? What gets lost in translation when people’s life stories are simply binned as “mental illness” and/or “addiction”?
The questions swirl. The sun sets and rises into another day on the exit ramp. And if I don’t look away, there will be someone else standing by the roadside, in ever-changing weather, hanging onto a shabby piece of cardboard, transmitting the sum message of all the messages: Help me.