Sunday, January 12, 2014

Whose Sandwich Is This?

One day, I found myself standing on a street corner in Chicago on a Winter day in sub-zero temperatures. I was facing away from the street, standing in front of a middle-aged (or older) man who was huddled in a doorway, swaddled in a bundle of ragged blankets and clearly suffering. I was in my twenties, having graduated college and working with children who's been taken out of their homes for abuse or neglect. Because the facility was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I didn't have a standard Saturday and Sunday weekend. Having weekdays off, when almost no-else I knew did, I often needed to find something to do with myself during the day, while everyone else I knew was working. On this particular day, I'd decided that I'd take the El downtown and walk around for exercise. For lunch, I'd dropped into Arby's. At the time, they were running a promotion offering five roast beef sandwiches for five dollars. Seeing a chance to take care of three meals at once, I bought five to go. By the time I'd reached the freezing street corner, I'd eaten two. The plan was for the others to go home with me and into the refrigerator. But seeing this homeless man, suffering in the cold, changed the plan. I stepped within arms reach, and held out the bag with the remaining sandwiches. He took them immediately, mumbled a hurried "Bless you," and quickly fell to eating.

The episode left me with a question: Whose sandwiches had I given him? Mine? Or his?

For me, three Arby's sandwiches at a dollar a piece were a small thing. Working in social services, I wasn't exactly raking in the dough, but I had two roommates to share expenses with, and so I wasn't hurting for cash. I certainly had enough money to spend on the hot new thing - a trading card game called Magic: The Gathering. And spend money on it, I had. The Arby's promotion was, for me simply a convenient way to have lunch, dinner and the next morning's breakfast squared away all at once. Or, if I'd decided to have something else for dinner that evening, a lunch or dinner later. There was food at home, and a grocery store only two or three blocks away.

For the homeless man, trapped outside without shelter, the sandwiches seemed to be much more. I don't know if they were his only meal for that day (or longer). But he certainly wasted no time tucking into them. There's a certain gusto, I've found, that only the desperately hungry can bring to meal. It likely overstates the case to say that those sandwiches stood between him and a bad end. While the calories would likely have helped, I held no illusions that they alone would have prevented the man from freezing to death, were he so at risk once the Sun went down and the winds picked up.

But what, I wondered, if they were the difference? What if those three somewhat-warm sandwiches were literally the difference between life and death? Did I have the right to withhold them? Had he asked for them, did I have right of refusal?

If someone needs something, and another can supply it without harm to themselves, at what level of need does the needy have an affirmative right to the thing, such that it is wrong to withhold it?
In the intervening years and decades, I've turned the question over in my head, but never come up with an answer. While I can articulate the circumstances under which I understand that it violates the Rules for me to refuse to share a resource, I can never come to a point at which I could force someone else to do the same without violating those same Rules.

I stood there in the cold and felt a compulsion to share what I had. Intellectually, I understand that I had a choice and could have simply gone on my way. But something within me, whether it was a need to purchase my own self-acceptance or the simple realization that this man was in dire straits and everything that people had taught me up to that point said that you don't ignore that sort of thing, told me that there was no other choice and I did as I was required to do. But, if I am required to do so, why not anyone else? Or, if they are not, why am I?

I am unable to reconcile them. Not that I know what I would do if I did. At the time, to keep the sandwiches that I had bought and paid for, seemed too much like theft. That's all that I know.

Since then, I have been unable to revisit that experience. I live near Seattle now and the sort of bone-jarring cold that swept the Windy City back then is little more than a memory. Seattle can lack comforting warmth, especially during the Winter rainy season, but it is never Cold in a way that forces you to realize that this is how nature can kill a man. And I'm much older now, and more prepared for the world around me. I'm more aware that there are people living on the streets who are only a short way away from danger and I'm more ready to offer (at least token) assistance. I've collected too many blessings to count from those who need them far more than I.

Perhaps one day, I will find myself again unready in a situation in which I have a choice to make, and I will be able to complete what I started that day. Until then, the question lingers, imposing itself on me at odd intervals and angrily whispering that I have work left to do. I don't know why I need to answer it, only that I do. Such are the Rules.

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