There’s a man we’ll call Charles that can often be found in my local CVS parking lot. Charles is probably about 40, missing a few teeth, tall, African American and wears a friendly grin and charming demeanor. He sits with a bucket of water, towels, and a few other supplies and asks people as they walk by if he can wash their car windows for them.
One can safely assume from his description that, like many men who share that description and the biases that go along with it, Charles has not been able to find good employment and lives far below the poverty line. (Granted, that is an assumption, he could be raking in the dough washing cars for all I know and enjoys working outside for pleasure rather than need. But I’ll stick with my assumption for the sake of this blog).
Here’s what I love about Charles, though: He’s apparently no better off than many of the poverty-stricken people in this city, but he found something he can do with what he has. He promises to do a good job and work with excellence. He’ll take whatever money people are willing to give and do his work with joy and gratitude. He sits off to the side of the store unobtrusively, never demanding. He’s very personable and at least looks happy – the kind of person you want to help because of their humility and welcoming presence.
Charles inspires me is because whether you are homeless, poor, or never have to worry about not paying a bill, we almost all want more than we have and often don’t know how to get there – be it a way to serve an overlooked group of people, make a social change, or increase finances. See here that there’s something we can do and have in our hands to get us started.
If we employ that at the simplest level, it will set us off on the path of creating change and not just letting life happen to us with our hands up in the air.
Another reason Charles inspires me is due to his attitude. As I said, Charles always has a friendly grin and a grateful spirit. If you say no thanks to his offer, he’ll reply, “Have a good day”. Or if you say, “Ok, but I only have $2 on me”, he’ll quickly accept it and jump up with his washing paraphernalia.
I had a brief conversation today after giving him that $2 and seeing his job well-done on my very dirty car. I said that now I just needed him to have an entire car-washing service to get it into truly proper state. He said CVS lets him hang out there a few days a week, so next time he’d be happy to do so if I had about 15 min.
As I got in my car to pull away, I watched two other people walk past Charles, saying no without ever looking at him. My guess is that they barely even heard what he was asking. Which I get – I do it far too often, especially if I’m in a hurry. Let’s just be honest, in a city of so many people asking for money left and right, you come to expect beggars and feel you too will eventually be homeless if you give money to every person you see who is asking.
It can get old and it is easy to grow calloused. So unfortunately, people like Charles trying to make a way suffer from that stereotype and the same rejection.
The point of saying that, though, is how it struck me today as to what that must feel like (maybe because I’ve been feeling particularly unmotivated lately). I can be unmotivated in work environments where I know I’m getting a paycheck, I know (usually) that the work matters, and I work with pleasant people.
But Charles gets up and goes to work in a hot parking lot, with no idea of how much money he’ll take home that day, only to be ignored and rejected over and over and over….treated as a burden. Then not only does he keep doing it, but he does it with so much kindness and joy. That put me in check today – Charles has the attitude I want to have.
Charles has the attitude another homeless friend who is currently living with me was talking to me about the other day as we stood in my kitchen: “People need to treat the homeless as human and with generosity….and the homeless need to realize that those who don’t or can’t help them aren’t bad and are not the enemy.” Understanding is two-sided, and people like Charles help bridge that gap.
As I left, my heart was lifted and my spirit shaken up. I thought I would really like to give him more money next time to wash my car, rather than take it to the car wash where I’d have to spend money anyway. Then I thought about what else he might be capable of doing, and that I’d like to find a way to bring him more business, or find additional work for him.
He didn’t have to ask, and he wasn’t spending time convincing me or others he was worthy of such a thing. He had just proved it by his actions and faithfulness; and his actions and faithfulness made me want to act the same. He restored my own motivation today and revitalized by creativity in developing broken communities.
He’s found a way to make some kind of living in his current situation that isn’t sitting on a sidewalk asking for money. I think that is important reminder for our friends without homes, and for those of us with the “should I give money?” question to know. Almost anyone can wash a window or pull a weed or vacuum a room, and many people can pay for such a service to provide a hand up for someone.
Rather than ask for or hand out money, how can we restore dignity and responsibility by finding these mutually beneficial experiences?