IT HAPPENS MORE OFTEN THAN I CARE TO ADMIT.
I’ll put on a fresh pair of jeans and find a dollar in my pocket. I’ll smile, then sigh with the guilty resignation of a purpose unfulfilled.
I’m not upset that I didn’t spend it. Nor am I happy that I “found” some money. I’m just disappointed.
You see, that dollar wasn’t meant to be spent, at least not by me. It was meant to be given away.
I should explain. From 2007 to 2012 I traveled regularly to San Francisco and stayed at the Hilton Union Square, which is really in the Tenderloin area. The Tenderloin is known for some cool restaurants and clubs and culture and Union Square, but it also has a rather visible homeless population.
Seeing as how I always went to the same places for dinner, taking the same routes (my OCD traveled well), I would see the same homeless people every day. So one night, I decided to put a dollar in my pocket on the way to dinner and give it to a homeless person. I did the same thing on the way back, always trying to give it to someone new.
And I haven’t stopped since.
I mostly go to New York now, but the city doesn’t matter. Wherever I travel, whether for work or pleasure, I always keep a dollar in my pocket and give it away when walking to or from a destination. As you can imagine I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, from James, the war veteran in San Francisco who wore his VA card around his neck, to Leo Gnawa in Washington, D.C., who is always in front of my favorite restaurant ready with a handshake and a smile.
These aren’t faceless or nameless people to me. They are my friends, my reminders of what matters. Some get dollars, some also get meals, but they all get my attention and respect.
Leo got something else, too — a role in my upcoming novel. Homelessness is a sub-plot and thematic thread, and I needed someone like him to be an unlikely hero in the story.
The following excerpt — from a conversation between homeless man Leo Ebbitt and a shelter volunteer — was inspired by something the real Leo told me shortly after we met:
“You gave me a dollar once,” said Leo. “I’m sure you do that for other people too, and I get a lot of dollars and change from folks who I couldn’t pick out from a lineup if you asked me. But you…I remember you because you asked me my name.
“No one ever asks my name. People don’t say anything all. Most of the time they walk by like I’m not even there, like I’m just part of the landscape or background or something. Even when someone does see me and helps me out with some money, they don’t see a person, they just see pity — and then I blink out of existence again. Out of sight, out of mind.
“But you stopped. You gave me dollar, you shook my hand, just like you did a few minutes ago, and you asked me my name. You said, ‘Bless you, Leo, take care of yourself.’ For that moment, and for a long while after, I didn’t feel invisible anymore.”
My track record isn’t perfect. Sometimes I forget the dollar. Sometimes it’s there but I’m on the phone or focused on work or there’s some other distraction and I walk by without stopping. But I still try to stop, look people in the eye and ask them their names. It’s a small dignity to most of us but, as Leo knows, to some it’s a gift. Recognition is the first step toward regaining your humanity.
It’s not about the dollar, the handout. It’s about the people and knowing that each of us, no matter how minor or fleeting the gesture, can make a difference.
Still, I hate finding a dollar in my pocket. A dollar in my pocket is a missed opportunity. It’s a failed attempt.
But it’s also a good reminder that a dollar in my pocket doesn’t do any good staying there.