[edit: this is a true story from my life, in case that wasn’t clear]
I hate grocery shopping. Usually I stop at this small Hugo’s on the way home from school. It reminds me of the grocery store my mom would go to when I was little. I prefer the small in this case; I have enough trouble making decisions I don’t need to be overwhelmed by food. My food choices stay simple. Frozen pizza. Macaroni. Canned soup. Soda. Potato chips/Cheez-Its. Microwave dinners. I zip up and down the aisles so I can get out of there faster. One of my former students works here. I hope I don’t see him. Sometimes he works the checkout and then he’ll be unavoidable. He’s not there. I put my groceries on my credit card. I don’t have the cash to cover the groceries. What I do find after I check out is her.
I’m almost out the door. “Excuse me.” I stop, my chest feeling a little tight, fearing what words would come next. Could I pretend not to hear even though I’ve already signaled that I have? “Excuse me, do you think you could give me a ride?” I turn back towards her and it’s too late. I know I won’t say no even though I desperately want to. The first thing I notice is her ugly brown coat. Her hair is stringy and her face unwashed. She’s squinting up at me. She’s fairly heavy set and sitting in a motorized cart provided by the store. Someone else can give her a ride. Please. It’s already 4 o’clock and the sun is going down on this Autumn day way up north. I tell her okay, but I have to put my groceries in the trunk first. Then I’ll pull around to the entrance and pick her up.
Much later I’ll realize that I could have just driven away. I’ve walked by lots of people asking for money in big cities, stared straight ahead and ignored them. Didn’t give them or my decision a second thought. I can’t help everyone. I don’t have the resources. But I gave her my word.
She has a walker that I stash in the back seat. She plops down in the passenger seat. Her unpleasant smell fills the car. Her voice is nearly as unpleasant. Whiny and nasal. She says she missed the bus and that her friend was unavailable to give her a ride. She wonders if I could take her to the bingo hall. She also wonders if I could give her thirty dollars for a motel room. She informs me that she is homeless.
How could anyone be homeless in North Dakota? It’s too far north—you can’t sleep outside in winter no matter how thick your coat. It’s going to be cold tonight. Below freezing. She needs shelter.
I don’t have thirty dollars. I know there isn’t much money in my wallet. I don’t like to carry cash because I’ll just spend it. My dad tells me frequently that I should keep some cash on me in case of emergencies. To illustrate the point, my mom carries around an emergency $20 bill which, if she uses for any reason, she immediately replaces for the next time.
Before I get in the car I check my wallet. Four one dollar bills. If I’m going to give her anything approaching what she’s asked for, I’ll have to go to the ATM machine. The only problem is that you can only take money out in multiples of $20 and I’m fairly positive I have less than $40 so the most I can withdraw is $20, plus the bank will charge a $2 service fee. I really need to open an account locally, but I hate banks and dealing with money. I don’t want to overdraw the account, though. I did that once already and it was a mess. Since I don’t have a branch within a few states adjacent, I can’t make a deposit to cover any overdraft. My paycheck from the school is directly deposited, but that’s not until the end of the month. The other time I overdrew the account, I had to ask my sister in Ohio to make a deposit to cover the amount plus penalties, and then I paid her back when payday finally rolled around. I live month to month. I have no savings, but no outstanding debts either.
I like to help people when I can, but the giving of money is so awkward. I hate tipping situations. How much to give. What to say. I hate it when the offering plate is passed in church.
But she probably needs the money. She needs to be indoors tonight. Though there’s no way I’m inviting her to my basement apartment. I don’t even have a bed for myself. I sleep in a sleeping bag on a thin pad filled with air. Basically I camp out every night in my basement room. I don’t have any furniture, either. My TV sits on a plastic crate. Naturally I have a TV, even if I don’t have a desk, dresser, or bed, because of course I have a TV. With cable, no less. It’s included with my rent. I share the phone with the other dormer who rents the other basement bedroom. The main room in the basement has a pool table, a hi-fi tuner, and a dart board. I find it all rather dreary and depressing. In addition to my dismal living conditions, my girlfriend of the past six months broke up with me right before I moved to North Dakota. A few weeks after I moved, my mom nearly died from complications with her hysterectomy. I haven’t made any friends here yet. Overall, this is not the best time for me.
I’m not aware of any homeless shelter in town. I ask her if she knows of one.
No, she doesn’t.
I drive to the ATM of the not-my-bank and slip my card in the reader. I type my PIN and accept the $2 fee. The machine spits out a twenty, and I hand it over to her along with the four ones I had in my wallet. I explain that it’s all that I have right now. Then I drive her over to the bingo hall, which is across the street from the bank. It’s connected to the mall. At least they call it a mall. It has a K-Mart, a Christian bookstore, the DMV, and a climbing wall. Oh, and a bingo hall. The entrance on this side has a hair dresser. Her friend is going to pick her up here.
I tell her I have some change back in my apartment, and that I’ll come right back so she can have the full $30, though I’m not sure I have six dollars in change. The house is right around the corner from K-Mart. It ends up I have $4.82. I stuff it in a plastic sandwich bag and head back to the bingo hall. She’s not there. I walk inside the mall, peer into the hair dresser’s, go further down the empty hall. Where could she be? She can’t have gone far. She can hardly walk. It’s only been a few minutes since I dropped her off. I give up. She’s gone.
The daylight’s faded completely. Now I have to go home and unload my groceries.
Later on I call my ex-girlfriend and tell her what I’ve done. There’s no one else to tell. I can’t figure out if I’ve been taken. It’s so easy to assume the worst about the woman. She wants money to gamble or for drugs or whatever, anything but shelter for the night. I don’t even feel particularly benevolent, but neither do I feel regret over my actions. Regret would imply I could have acted otherwise.