The man is standing at the side of the road, the one by the exit ramp a few miles from my house. He, or rather, some other man who appears to be in the same position, is always standing there.
He is holding a cardboard sign with the words “stranded/ hungry/ out of work/ can you spare some change.” On the ground at his feet is a backpack, dirty and crumpled. A blanket roll is affixed to the top of his pack with twine or bungee cords. Sometimes there is a mangy dog, lying obediently at the man’s feet, the leash coiled beside his napping head.
The man is dirty, his face is smudged with dirt, he hasn’t shaved for several days. If he’s wearing a hat, the hair that is hanging out is matted. Sometimes he has a ponytail. His fingers gripping his sign are caked with dirt. Occasionally a cigarette hangs from his lips.
I don’t know how I know so many of these visual details about the man. Before braking at the light on the exit ramp, I’ve locked my doors and vowed to stare straight ahead. I don’t look at him, I can’t look at him.
I feel ashamed to be sitting in my SUV that’s always full of gas, my iPhone sitting in the console, my children watching a non-stop loop of DVDs, my stomach and my children’s stomachs full from a weekly lunch at a nice deli. I can’t even look at the man, I really don’t have any cash to give him. I pretend to talk to my children or to be absorbed in finding some fake lost item in my center console.
As the light turns green and start to drive, I feel relieved not to be stopped next to the man that I pretended was invisible.
I wonder about the man’s story.
Is he really stranded? Does he really want money for food or would he go and buy liquor or drugs with the money? Does he have family? Does his family know that he’s standing by an off ramp, holding a cardboard sign that says he’s hungry?
How did he end up here, both HERE at that intersection, but also here in his life, standing at the side of the road asking passing motorists for a ride and money?