Last week on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, I encountered a man who looked like one might expect Santa Claus to present himself if he’d been kicked out of the North Pole, mugged in a back alley, and ate nothing but donuts and diet coke since learning how to chew. I sat idling in my car at a stoplight. He sat idling in a broken-down electric wheelchair, his stomach and beard spilling forth over his lap. In his hands, a half-chewed cup he held out to every pedestrian on the sidewalk within poking distance of his cane. He kept yelling, “Quarters! Quarters! Do you have any quarters! Any extra quarters?”
I thought about rolling the windows up and turning the radio on in an attempt to smother the conviction lurking around in the backseat before it became a living, breathing thing I couldn’t escape. “Too bad I’m in this car,” I thought to myself. “If I was on foot and passing him by, I’d give him a few dollars, but…” Father Christmas had parked himself at the bus stop, the intersection of Hollywood and Vine a major artery for bus and foot traffic. All the people flowing through this vein ignored his desperate plea for “Quarters! Quarters! Do you have any extra quarters?”
The light turned green. My chance for a gateway. I could put the sad, sad image of him forever out of my mind. But against my better judgement I cut into the right lane, cutting off traffic, and parked in a Red Zone. (You’re as good as ticketed and towed for that sort of insidious behavior in Los Angeles.) I rounded the corner, fumbling with my wallet, and came to a literal skidding stop. (The pavement was wet, and Aldo makes shoes with soles that turn into ice skates in the rain.) Someone else was already there striking up conversation. Friend or foe, it was unclear.
He was a tall, thin man with dark, leathery features, and clothes too big for his frail frame. The skin on his face rippled like waves in a storm at sea. These two knuckleheads could certainly be friends. The buses were loud. I couldn’t quite catch their conversation, but the thin man pulled from his bag what I perceived to be a compact disc. The cover featured grassy fields full of flowers and big bright yellow letters announcing the ability to hear from the spirit of God. All you needed was electricity and a DVD player.
“Do you have access to a DVD player?” the thin man asked.
Santa seemed displeased the compact disc was just a compact disc and not a Subway sandwich.
I waited around until a strong enough breeze blew through the intersection, and carried the thin man off to his next destination.
“Quarters! Quarters! Do you have any quarters? Any extra quarters?” I handed Santa a pathetic five dollars. His eyes went wide. “Whoa. Hey. Sir.” He held up his hands, under arrest and guilty. “Do you need change or something?”
I’ve had homeless men spit in my face, threaten to kill me, pray for me, scowl at my offers to buy them lunch, ignore my deliveries of pillows and blankets, and even instruct me to give my money to Los Angeles because the city could use my generosity to pave the roads. But none of them have ever asked if I needed change.
Santa was in such complete disbelief over someone handing him a five dollar bill — not even enough money to purchase a Venti Frappuccino from Starbucks — that he believed I needed change. What was surging through his heart in that moment? Did he believe he was only worth the couple of quarters he was asking for?
Sometimes I think I’m worth even less than that. Sometimes I think God doesn’t love me, and that I’ll never make it into heaven. Sometimes I think my savior is tired of my laments. Sometimes I look in the mirror and cannot fathom why it is my wife is attracted to me. Sometimes I feel entirely unloved. Sometimes someone does something for me that I feel undeserving of receiving. So much so, I’ve actually handed gifts back because I’ve deemed myself unworthy.
I have to others just as Santa said to me, “Are you sure about this?”
“Trust me,” I told Santa. “I don’t need change.” If I had stuck around any longer, I’m certain he would have invited me to McDonald’s to split a Happy Meal with the money, and ask to borrow a DVD player.
I know I’m no hero for giving a man five dollars. In fact, I’m embarrassed to be writing about the whole thing.
Understand there is no moral to this story, only a punchline.
I walked away feeling worthless. Feeling worth less than I had before I’d tried to help because I couldn’t do more.
“You sure about this?!” Santa called out.
I was sure.
“Well Goddamn!” He shouted as I walked away. “You’re going to heaven, brother! You know that? Believe it!”
I believe it now. But only because it costs less than five dollars to get in, and we’re all worth so much more.
copyright © May 2012 || Make It MAD