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The Warmth Was Bitter Cold

It was 6:43 pm.

I had just dropped Kyle off at his rehearsal on the way home from a very long day of work. I’d tried to stop by the UPS store, only to discover that they’d closed 13 minutes before, but not before I lugged 6 huge (and rather heavy) packages out of the car and up to the shop in the freezing ass cold. I was tired, freezing, and now pissed off. I threw the boxes back in the car and slammed the door. On a whim, I decided to pop by the liquor store in the same strip mall and see if they had my Swedish Fish-flavored vodka. (Because I don’t know if I told you guys or not, but that shit is the SHIT!) After all I’d been through, I felt like I deserved a treat.

As I scurried into the liquor store, I thought I caught a shadow in the corner of my eye, but I kept walking. I was delighted to find my desired bottle of happiness on the shelves, and before long I was shivering my way back to the car, brown paper bag in hand. Hurrying across the parking lot, I focused my eyes more purposefully on the shadows and realized that my eyes hadn’t deceived me after all.

Huddled in the darkness of the alley was a homeless man, leaning on a shopping cart full of stuff. It was hard to tell, what with the dark and the thick bundle of coats that he was wearing, but it might have been the homeless guy who hangs out on the same bench on Broadway everyday. But like I said, in the dark, it could have been anyone.

As I struggled with my key in the lock, I felt the cold wind biting my skin, and I knew that he was feeling the same wind. It’s 11 degrees outside right now, with a windchill of -2. Guys, it’s bitter outside, the kind of cold that actually physically hurts. I got in the car and sat there, trying to think of ways that I could help him. I had some cash in my purse, of course. I could drive across the parking lot to the Wendy’s and buy him a gigantic coffee and a burger. I could offer him the blanket that I keep in the car for when Kyle insists on turning the heat off and my feet are cold.

But I did none of those things. Instead, I started the car and drove him, heat blasting all the way.

The thing is, as much as I ached for him and as badly as I wanted to do something to warm him a little, more than that was I afraid of him.

That’s not fair, I know. But I’ve had enough interactions with homeless people to know that they can be mentally unstable, tweaked out on drugs, or both. And while there’s a really good chance that he’s a very nice man who would be extremely touched by a moment of kindness, there’s also a chance that he could be dangerous to me. Even though I’m on the tall side for a woman, ever since I was mugged in college I’ve been extremely cautious about where and when I go alone. Ever since that night, being outside by myself at night makes me uncomfortable, whether I’m going for a run or walking a few blocks to my car. And at that moment, I was extra on edge because it felt like a man in a car had watched me walk back to my car from the UPS store and followed me to the liquor store. He drove away as I walked inside the store, but it left a shiver in my spine and had me pretty squirreled up. As much as I wanted to help that homeless man, I just couldn’t see a way to do it that didn’t involve walking down that alley through the dark, and I was too terrified to make myself do it.

So I went home.

Except that now that I’m home, I feel awful. All I’ve wanted all day as I shivered at work was to come home, pour myself a drink, curl up on the couch, and eat dinner. And I finally got to do all that. I’ve got a pile of blankets and a cat curled up on my lap. I have a delicious cocktail of Swedish Fish vodka and sparkling peach water. And I have a giant bowl of creamy cauliflower and potato soup topped with Sriracha that’s so warm and spicy and hearty that it’s warmed me all the way to my toes.

But instead of relaxing and enjoying the warmth after a hard day of work, I just feel like shit. Like a sack of guilty shit. All I can think of are ways that I should have helped that man. I should have given him money. I should have bought him food. I should have gone back into the liquor store and asked the employees if they knew him, and if he was safe to approach alone. I should have offered to drive him to a shelter. I should have taken him into my home and piled him with blankets and given him a giant bowl of soup. Of course I know logically that doing any of those things would have been foolish at best, dangerous at worst, ridiculous somewhere in the middle . I know that I did the right thing by just going home and not putting myself at risk. But none of that makes me feel better. None of it eases the guilt.

Because at the end of the day, I’m still in my warm apartment with a full stomach and he’s still outside fighting  frostbite in the subzero wind.

So I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to wait until 9:30 pm, when I’ve picked Kyle up from rehearsal, and we’re going to go back by the liquor store and see if he’s still there. If he is, then together we’ll do something, either give him some money or buy him something to eat or something. Because with Kyle by my side, I don’t feel like there’s so much danger; there will be two of us and Kyle’s a man, a brawny man no less. There’s a chance that he will have moved on by then; if it’s the guy who hangs out on Broadway, he moves locations every few hours during the day, and it’s likely that he does the same at night. So there’s a chance that he won’t be there when we go back. But I hope he is.

Because…guys? It’s really cold outside.


It’s exactly 10:01 pm.

I just got home from picking Kyle up from rehearsal, and on the way we stopped back at the liquor store to check on the homeless man. And just as I’d feared, he was gone. But then Kyle pointed out that we were literally two blocks from a large shelter that opens up at 7:00 pm, and that the homeless man was probably hanging out there waiting for the shelter to open. And then I felt better. He probably still would have appreciated a kind gesture in the form of a hot cup of coffee, but at least I feel peace knowing that at this moment he’s curled up under a warm blanket, just like me. Maybe not with chocolate peanut butter ice cream and a purring cat, but at least he’s warm.

Because it’s really cold outside.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • allison January 23, 2013, 12:11 pm

    First off – Swedish Fish vodka!?!?! I must track this down.

    I’m with you on homeless people. Memphis has TONS of them, but we also have tons of crime, so I’m always torn when I see them, just like you were. There’s so much you COULD do, but it could endanger you, or if you just give them money, they might squander it, are they REALLY homeless or just begging, etc etc. It’s tough to figure out.

    Have you ever encountered the angry homeless? Not like crazy ranters, but the ones who ask for money, and when you say you don’t have any cash they’re all “FUCK YOU man, whatchu mean you ain’t got no cash?!” I want to say “Um, YOU don’t have any cash, either!” but I value my life too much.

  • Christine January 23, 2013, 8:27 pm

    You have a kind heart, Steph. And a practical mind. Not that I’m a huge Oprah fan, but she always says that intuition is the voice of God. I have often thought of putting together “blessing bags.” I’ve seen them on Pinterest (where else?) Its a ziplock bag that contains things like a toothbrush and toothpaste, hairbrush, granola bars, maybe even a small blanket. You keep them in your car for when you have these kinds of encounters. Maybe your next free day we can get together and make a few.

  • Peg January 24, 2013, 11:30 am

    Chapstick is another great thing to donate.

    And remember that your local shelter would love your donations, either money or items. They can make sure that they get in the right hands.

    You’re a good kid, Stephanie. And I’m glad you have a great friend like Christine.

  • Kate January 24, 2013, 10:12 pm

    I never ever give money, but I have bought and provided meals for homeless before; I’m a big believer in instinct when approaching strangers though. The cold is tough, but I bet Kyle is right, he had to have been waiting on the shelter.
    I wouldn’t feel guilty, but I’ve never really been accused of being very empathetic.

    • Monster January 25, 2013, 8:55 am

      Okay, confession time. This should address pretty much everyone’s comments.

      99% of the time, I don’t really concern myself with the plight of the homeless, and I almost never give them money. (Unless they’re performing and I’m REALLY digging their act.) Because the large majority of the homeless that I’ve encountered have been the variety that Allison’s familiar with. Either they’re telling me fake stories to try and manipulate me into giving them money and then cussing me out when I don’t give them any, or they’re the dangerously unstable kind who bathe themselves at the hand sanitizer station, steal garbage bags to fashion themselves diapers, and kick our buildings manager in the face when he tries to escort them out of our elevator. So yeah, usually I don’t really worry myself with the homeless.

      It’s just that it was really fucking cold.

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