I’d driven past the woman with her cardboard sign earlier in the morning and hadn’t given her much thought, though it was unusual to see beggars standing along that road.
But when I noticed her again at about two in the afternoon, I tried to read her sign as I drove past. It was impossible to read anything but the word “Plees”. I shook my head in disdain. She’d used a ballpoint pen or thin marker to write the sign. How could she expect anyone to see the lousy thing? I chuckled at the thought of giving her a Sharpie to fix her letters rather than give her any money.
And then my conscience struck.
How dare I drive past this woman in need and chuckle inside my warm car at the thought of toying with her as she stood in the freezing cold? It was Christmas Eve after all! Didn’t the Bible say that we’re supposed to give to beggars in the streets and to the poor in need?
So I turned around and parked my Buick in the Big Boy parking lot, walking over to her. She was about 35 or 40, the same age as my youngest daughter, and she was quite thin and worn-looking, with an ugly faded tattoo of a teardrop beside her eye. I handed her five dollars and she said “Oh, thank you! God bless you!”, and I expressed my hope that she could soon get out of the cold. I never even bothered to read her sign.
As I prepared to leave, I thought Surely I can afford to give this poor woman more than a measly five dollars. She was so thankful and polite. And it was only twelve degrees outside! Five dollars wouldn’t really help get her out of a bad situation.
So I pulled out a ten from my wallet and hurried back to her. She looked at me in puzzlement, so I explained that I had a feeling in my gut that I should give her more, and I handed her the ten. She said, “You are so kind!” and started to explain to me how she’d left Coldwater, Michigan the day before and was trying to get to her family for Christmas.
“How much do you need so you can get to your family?” I asked. Maybe I could put an end to her need to beg right there and then.
“Bus fare would cost at least forty dollars,” she said with a pitiful expression.
I didn’t hesitate to pull another forty dollars from my wallet, all that I had left. “This way you can stop standing in the awful cold and be with your family where you ought to be!” I said, giving her my most reassuring smile of goodness and generosity.
“Oh, you don’t have to do this!” she exclaimed as she took the two twenties. “You’re an angel!”
“Oh, I’m no angel,” I assured her. “Though I’ll be dead soon enough.” (A sorry attempt at self-deprecating humor that she politely smiled at.)
I noticed that she was rubbing her hands and shivering under her thin jacket. I wanted to hug this poor child.
“It’s so cold out here, and that jacket doesn’t look very warm. Please take my coat to wear for your trip back to your family.”
As I removed my heavy coat and handed it to her, she burst into a flood of tears.
I looked into her sad countenance, so full of despair, and asked what was wrong.
“My youngest daughter Gabrielle! She is having heart surgery today in Indianapolis. I might just be able to reach the next bus to get there before they start, all thanks to you!”
I knew just what to do for her! After all, it was Christmas! “I’ll drive you down there right now!”
“Oh no!” she said. “I’m so thankful, but I don’t dare take a ride from a stranger. You see, years ago something terrible happened…”
I was overwhelmed with pity and horror. What a hopeless life this woman must have lived, and mine a life of such comfort. “Say no more, miss!” I pulled the car keys from my back pocket with a feeling of righteous determination and sacrifice. “Take my car down to Indianapolis. The important thing is that you go to your poor little daughter. I’ll give you my number and you can call me when you get to Indianapolis, and I’ll pick up my car some time later. Just go to your daughter!”
She threw her arms around me and wept, and my heart overflowed with joy. I knew that I’d made the right decision.
“Oh, thank you, thank you! You are my hero! You are just like my dear old grandpa, and I will never forget you!” Her tear-streaked face beamed with joy. But then she frowned: “But I don’t have a phone to call you back with.”
“Surely one of your relatives has a phone that you could use,” I said. She shook her head, hopelessness and fear creeping back into her eyes. “Okay, I will lend you my phone! You can call me when you get down there and I’ll get it back with my car!”
She broke down again, saying that she’d spent the whole day at that roadside without anyone giving her a dime. Then I came along and made everything right. I felt like a hero, a saint among selfish and cold-hearted people who could ignore this woman in need, and my heart gushed with joy that I could make such an important difference in one person’s life through simple caring and generosity.
I wrote my phone number on the back of her cardboard sign as she sat behind the wheel of my Buick. I told her that I hoped her daughter’s surgery went well and waved as she drove away. Never had I felt so filled with joy and thanksgiving! This was the best Christmas ever!
And then I noticed how awfully COLD it was! I shivered and walked into the Big Boy, realizing that I had given away my wallet along with the coat. I asked the hostess if I could use the Big Boy phone, but she refused to help. I begged and pleaded with customers as they left the restaurant, but they refused to even look at me.
I walked around to the back of the restaurant and found an empty cardboard food box. I ripped it apart and wrote on a large piece: “Help! No car! No phone! Trying to get home!”
I held the sign up at the same spot that the woman had stood. People driving past looked away from me as I shivered. One mustachioed man did finally come along, and though he handed me a crumpled dollar he wouldn’t look me in the eye or listen as I told him that I didn’t need any money, that I just wanted to call my wife. He sped away without a word.
Finally after two and a half hours, someone finally let me use his phone. When Millie finally arrived, she was very concerned that I’d been robbed. I explained as she scooted to the passenger seat that I had just loaned my car and phone to a poor, sweet young woman, and Millie shook her head in irritation at my story.
As I drove down that road, only half a mile away Millie said, “That woman is wearing your coat!”
I was shocked! It was the same poor young woman! She stood with her cardboard sign as a man in a red pickup truck gave her some cash and drove away.
I stopped in the drive right next to her, and as the beggar woman walked up to my window her eyes bulged in recognition, and then she broke down into gut-wrenching sobs.
“Oh, sweetheart!” I called. “What happened to you? Where is my car?”
“Oh, I’m so horribly sorry!” the woman cried. “These carjackers came at the gas station…” and her weeping drowned out the rest of her words.
As I started to climb out of Millie’s car to console the woman, my wife grabbed my arm and growled, “Don’t you dare, mister! She’s playing you for a fool!”
“Nonsense!” I shouted, irritated that my own wife could be so callous. I stepped out of the car. The poor woman had turned her back to me, her body bent and shaking with her tears. “Don’t worry about the car,” I said to the woman. “The important thing is your daughter.” Then I heard Millie’s car door slam, and I turned to see my wife hurrying towards me, her face set with rage.
And at that moment I saw my own Buick jut in front of Millie’s Lincoln and halt, missing my wife by several feet. A brutish man peered at me from behind the wheel, his unshaven face filled with stupid, smug arrogance. It was the carjacker!
“Hey!” the carjacker shouted through the open window. “You leave my woman alone!”
I watched in shock and confusion as the poor beggar woman tossed aside her sign and hopped into the passenger seat of my Buick. The man flipped me off as he sped away. I felt so foolish!
As my wife snarled and fussed, I picked up the sign. It said, “I Have a Warm Home. I am Collecting for Someone Who Don’t. Plees Help!”
So I’m a sucker and a fool!
But I played a fool for all the right reasons, and I should be glad of that. There might be a lot of people out there making a fine living with their cardboard signs, but I will still gladly help them in the future. Surely a few of them actually need help, right? And for those truly in need it is still worthwhile to give, sucker or no. I won’t let a few bad apples ruin it for the rest of them.
Merry Christmas, everyone!