Every evening, as I walk out of the office building in which I work and into the bowels of the nearest Metro Station, I pass a man sitting on a bench. He is African American--which hardly seems relevant, but will become so quickly here--and he is holding a cup in his hand. As you walk past him, he calls out, "Don't throw them pennies away."
Occasionally, if I have some pocket change, I put it in his cup.
Tonight, as I walked past him, I checked my pockets for change. Finding I had none and hearing him call out, "Don't throw them pennies away," I said, "I don't even have pennies to give."
"No, he said, "but you're white."
"That's true," I thought, in passing. As I rode down the escalator, I realized I was daft. I'd heard and received his comment in a cursory manner, but the further I pondered it, the more I realized his comment went deeper than just the color of my skin and his. I didn't know whether to be remorseful and apologetic or angry.
To be frank, I'm not sure what to do, think, or make of this experience. I've typed in a number of paragraphs that try to see things from his perspective or that tell you something about my views on homelessness or that try to bridge this divide between privilege and poverty or even between black and white. But then it all sounds trite and patronizing or self-aggrandizing. Worse, most of it sounds and feels empty. And yet, his comment triggered a reaction in me that I'm not entirely able to put my finger on.
I suppose, more than anything, I feel like I've been judged. Maybe I shouldn't have said, "Oh, sorry. I don't even have a penny" and just walked by in silence. Maybe it was the wrong thing for me to say in an effort to acknowledge his presence and relay the message that I wanted to help, but I couldn't that particular evening. (I've given this guy a couple of bucks and loose change here and there before, but after tonight, I'm feeling less inclined.) Or maybe I should have said what I did and he should have kept his thoughts to himself. Either way, something passed between us that just felt wrong somehow.
Any thoughts, oh loyal blogosphere?