“‘Scuse me, you speak English?” the guy in the winter jacket asks me as he pulls his cell away from his ear. There’s some urgency to his voice, gravity.
In my neighborhood, I could, I suppose, be mistaken for a Russian or a Pole or a Serb, so the odds are decent that English is not my first language. But that I don’t speak it all? That seems a bit ridiculous. “Yeah.” There’s not much else to say.
“Let me call you right back,” he says into the phone as he snaps it shut. He drops the phone in the pocket of his jacket and pulls out an inhaler. “I live right over there,” and he points at a yellow brick apartment building, “and my daughter is at the clinic,” and he points in another direction, up the street toward the clinic by the college, and he pulls the medication part of the inhaler back.
I assume he’s demonstrating that it’s empty. I stop him before he gets any further. “Sorry, man. I don’t have anything on me. I don’t even have a wallet.” This is true. I have a gym bag on my back and my keys and a bottle of water. I have nothing that can help this man with his daughter’s medication. Assuming he has a daughter.
He doesn’t look like the guy who sits in the doorway, unshaven with bad teeth. That guy writes sometimes, or draws, occasionally shakes a McDonald’s cup with a few coins in it, occasionally asks directly for change. He’s a guy who looks like he needs money. The man in the winter coat with the phone and the inhaler also doesn’t look like the woman who asks, “Do you have money or cigarettes,” which is refreshingly blunt, if no more endearing. She’s usually got jeans and some kind of polyester pullover and looks vaguely distraught.
What does need look like? Because if it was real need, I tell myself, I would be more inclined to help. I hope I would be more inclined to help. I imagine myself in their positions. What if I’m locked out of my apartment? What if I lose my wallet and my phone? How do I address the possible problems that can arise? How would I deal with having to ask strangers for money? How much would I need?
The man with the winter jacket and the phone. He might really live in that building. He might really have a daughter. His clothes, his bearing, his seriousness all suggest “I’m not kidding around. I’m not the guy in the doorway who’s asking for a quarter or a dollar.” No, he’s serious and we’re talking about meds, his ask is probably a bit higher.
The man with the winter jacket and the phone has also asked me if I speak English once before. To his credit, he pointed in the same directions (I live over there, my daughter is up there). Maybe he’s just bad about managing medications. Should his daughter pay for his bad planning?
I’m reaching for a reason not to think that this guy isn’t putting me on. But even if he doesn’t have a daughter, doesn’t live in that yellow brick building, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have actual need. Maybe this is how he learned people respond best – to crisis.
What does need look like? What is the sort of need that compels you to help?