Sunday, January 27, 2013

Can You Spare a Quarter?

I do not wish to squawk about being hit financially any more than I would squawk about being hit physically. I need money, badly, but not badly enough to do one dishonorable, shady, borderline, or 'fast' thing to get it. I hope this is quite clear. —Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Alfred Rice, 1948 (Selected Letters, p. 655)
Last Saturday I was walking to the train, thinking, like I often do, about how much money I had in my checking account. I was waiting for $100 to come in for a freelance job I'd been working on, and doing quick math in my head about how much spending money I'd have until next pay day if that didn't come through beforehand.

I was feeling a little sorry for myself.

I shoved my hands deeper into my coat pockets and looked ahead down the block. There he was, the same guy I'd been seeing recently outside the California stop. I was far enough away that I couldn't hear, but could see, what was going on—two people walked past him, as he leaned forward, sticking his hand out slightly. They walked faster, without looking at him. As I got closer, I saw him notice me.

I could feel change in my pocket as I got closer to the man, and the train. I saw the dirt on his face. He looked at me: "Could you spare 75 cents for the bus?"

I only had a quarter in my pocket. A quarter, and a penny. I put the penny back in my pocket, because it felt like an insult, somehow, to give this man a quarter and a stupid penny. What would he do with a penny?

"I have a quarter," I said, and handed it to him, feeling guilty. He saw me put the penny back in my pocket.

I walked through the doors at the train stop, pulled out my CTA card, and got the green message to enter. As I walked up the stairs to the train, I remembered seeing that same man digging through the trash can last week. Maybe he could have used the penny after all.

Once the train arrived, I got a seat and looked out the window, feeling ashamed of myself. Before the train even made it to the Western stop, a man walked through the doors from the car ahead. I kept looking out the window and waited for it.

"Ma'am, could you spare a quarter?"

I looked away from the window, and up at him.

"I'm sorry, I can't."

I could, but I couldn't, because I had a paycheck coming soon, but all I had left in my pocket was a penny.

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