My assistant elf and I locked on the target: two homeless guys trying to find comfort in the rain outside of Bruns’ Apple Market on 6th Avenue.
“Could you use some stuff to keep you warm?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” said one of the young men, a Lane Community College graduate who’s been homeless for nearly two years.
His buddy was shivering under a tarp.
I pulled out a sack of new gloves, hats, socks, long underwear, rain ponchos and beef jerky.
“Oh, my God, this is great!” said LCC man.
By the time Mike Hawley and I had returned to my car, one guy already had the hat on and his LLC buddy was helping him on with the gloves.
But here’s what struck me: he hadn’t bothered to rip the tags off either item. He couldn’t care less how he looked. What he cared about was staying alive.
When you’re poor, life is about substance, not style.
It’s among the lessons I was reminded of Tuesday as Hawley and I dispersed $1,000 in Christmas cheer given to me by the same semi-anonymous donor who had commissioned me to do the same for six years when I was a full-time Register-Guard columnist.
(He let me “out” him at a recent banquet, though I’m still not mentioning his name, because that’s not why he does this.)
In five hours, Hawley and I gave to 26 recipients, from folks waiting at bus stops to cab drivers to people shopping in discount stores to those at the train station.
We gave $253 worth of food and winter clothing to homeless people and the rest, in cash, to folks in Eugene-Springfield who we decided upon with a sort of “gut feel.”
Like a 50-something woman in line at Winco in Springfield. Her basket was filled with what looked like the fixings for a turkey dinner.
“So,” I said, “going to do some holiday cooking?”
“Yes. Just me and my daughter. I lost my husband this year.”
She didn’t have to mention the heart surgery she’d had, we already knew she was a good choice.
“We’d like to pay for your groceries,” I said.
Her face lit up like a plugged-in Christmas tree. It was only $69.29, but you’d have thought it was $6,929 the way she reacted.
Hawley voted that his “most moving” moment.
He knows a little something about gratitude, having survived a 125-foot fall from the top of Mt. Thielsen in 2012. What saved him was the diligence of a group of friends who stayed at his side — and an Oregon National Guard helicopter crew that plucked him off the mountain shortly before dark.
Since I wrote about the incident for the RG, we’ve become good friends — we hike Mt. Pisgah together regularly — and when he expressed interest in joining me for the money giveaway, I gladly welcomed him.
His impressions of the experience mirrored my own.
“I discovered “giving away money” is not as easy as you might think, especially if you are doing it with intention,” he said. “I found myself essentially ‘profiling’ people I observed in an attempt gauge their ‘worthiness.’”
At the Shari’s Restaurant on 11th Avenue, we paid for the lunch — and more — of a couple of 60-something sisters, handing them a $50 bill as they awaited their food. They were thrilled. But a woman downtown in a Santa’s hat all but shrugged when Mike gifted her with the same amount.
“It felt great when the person showed joy and gratitude while at the same time I experienced a sense of ‘failure’ if the reaction was anything approaching indifferent,” Hawley said.
Naturally, you want the recipients to appreciate the gift, but you can’t let that be your barometer of success. We can’t control what a gift means — or doesn’t mean — to someone. All we can do is give — and hope it touches the recipient in some way.
A woman with a young boy on “A” Street in Springfield broke into tears, said “God bless you!” when I gave her $50, then shouted “Wow!” as we drove off.
On the other hand, beneath the Washington-Jefferson Street Bridge, we witnessed the dark side of homelessness: two men, one fighting serious demons, the other picking through our cold-weather clothes offerings with no sense of gratitude.
But other homeless recipients were thrilled, reminding me that people are people, rich or poor. Some are grateful, some are greedy.
Most of the folks we gave to were thrilled with the $20 or $50 we offered them. Only one person, a woman waiting at the Amtrak Station, turned down our gift. “I appreciate it,” she said, “but there are others who need it more. I’m fine.”
“That was the coolest moment for me,” said Hawley. “It was also priceless to see a homeless guy light up when we handed him a $15 Burger King Gift card.”
The moment that’ll stay with me is the two homeless guys I referred to at the story’s start, the ones for whom our warm clothes seemed to be life savers.
You see something like that and it shames you for the times you’ve bellyached about some convenience gone wrong. And encourages you that, yeah, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
At Christmas and beyond.