Plodding across the vacant, sun-scorched parking lot with a book loaded drawstring bag across my back I had one goal in my mind. A bowl of rice and chicken. The shopping center across the lot from the library was home to dozens of cheap restaurants. The holy grail of them all, Number One Sushi, would sell a three pound bowl of high quality rice, chicken, and vegetables for the $2.50, a price that a 12 year old me could manage. Walking to the mall entrance, I heard a hoarse voice call out in my direction.
“Hey, give me a dollar.”
With a stiffer spine than before I kept walking. All I had was just enough for my own lunch. I was very shy, and the voice was deep enough to ensure I had better just keep walking.
The call became a shout, “Hey n****r, give me money!”
With 50 feet left to the entrance, with no surety of who it was I made a break for it. I don't live in the nicest part of town, not all of the houses are in one piece. Something like this was not uncommon, and still isn’t years later. It’s hard to blame someone for being so angry, caught outside twenty four seven in the blistering hell of Phoenix, Arizona. Still, I was twelve! A scrawny kid in ripped jeans and a blank T- shirt does not look to be dripping with money. Nor can he exactly defend himself. I was taught to view beggars and the homeless with a bit of a stern dignity. They are people, yes, but there is always a dark reason why they are where they are. They’re desperate people with little to lose, which is a very dangerous combination. So I was taught.
Safe inside of the crowded, well air-conditioned mall I went to the food court, ordered my usual with the little money I had, and sat down. I whipped out one of the books crammed into my bag and turned pages with one hand while the other manipulated the fork in and out of the bowl. Before long a different man came up to me and stood at the edge of the table.
“Can I have some food?” he asked.
My heart started racing all over again. What was I going to do? He seemed polite, didn't seem dangerous (though you could never truly tell), yet I didn't have any more money to buy another bowl. The first thought was to share it. But this was my food. Food that had been bought with my own money, earned from cleaning other people's yards every Saturday morning. It might be that I put too much value in money, but I was raised with the basic idea that nothing is free. Now here was this man, asking for my food, for nothing. No matter what life experience had shaped my thinking the sinking feeling of guilt was still inescapable. I felt the sincerity in his voice, heard his pain,it was clear this man was starving.
“Please?” He asked.
He was even being polite about it. How on earth could I leave him with an empty stomach while I shoveled food into my own face? But nothing is free.
“Tell me a story,” I said, “ I’ll share my food with you if you tell me a story.”
I was no less confused than he by what I had come up with in two seconds, but he didn’t have any objections to it. It settled my mind completely, because everyone always has a story. He grabbed fork, sat down across from me and started eating while telling me about his own life. While I can’t remember all of what he had said exactly, the story of his life swept me away, amazing me at everything that had happened to him over the years, the highs and lows of a life so strange to mine. In the end, he said, he just hit a string of bad luck and ended up out on the streets. Still he was hopeful, sure that he would find a job soon enough and climb out of his rut. We emptied the bowl before long but he kept going, explaining it all up until he ended up at that mall. Even after that we talked for a while, there was so much I could learn from him. Soon enough it was like talking to anyone of my friends, with both of us and laughing and smiling. It might have been one of the only times someone had ever truly talked to him as an equal since he entered his predicament. I left the mall a good while later than I was supposed to, with a full bag, and full mind. No matter how hard I thought there wasn’t a single ill thought in my mind of that man. It was like night and day, him asking kindly for food and the one who had shouted at me across the parking lot. It didn’t matter that both where begging for something. Their position meant nothing. It was as simple as the man in the mall was a good and honest person, the other was not. It didn't matter that he had no money, he had his words, good spirit, and a friendly smile. Those are what shows a person’s true colors more than any monetary amount ever will.