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Today on my way home from the library I was driving up Watt Avenue just past the small mall with the big Macy’s store when I noticed a gray-haired woman at least 60 years old standing on the sidewalk holding up a cardboard sign. It read “Need money for medicine – Cancer.” Ah, my heart missed a beat as the automotive caravan rolled by her.

It has been my habit to keep a few dollar bills in the car to hand out on such occasions as this but today I was driving in the third lane over and could not easily segue across two lanes. Just as I was deciding how to maneuver to the far right and perhaps making a turn into the mall parking lot I saw second person holding a sign with the same message – “Need money for medicine – Cancer.”

This second sign holder was an old man – probably her husband – who was sitting in a folding metal chair with a portable oxygen tank with a thin plastic tube running from the tank to his nose. By the next red light I had turned into the parking lot and then drove down the exit road directly beside the sitting man. After pressing the button that rolled down the far window I held out a few dollars. He got up from his metal chair, stumbled over to the car, accepted my donation and thanked me.

I could see that he was not used to this give and take of the street corners for he did not have the smooth “Thank you and God bless” of more practiced petitioners. Rather than the full eyes-on-eyes exchange of war veterans, homeless men or drug addicts, I saw in the quick glance from him, eyes that held embarrassment, resignation and futility.

As I drove back into the mainstream of traffic a sob escaped as I thought, “It’s a good thing we’re in a Great Recession instead of the Great Depression. It’s a good thing we’re one of the richest countries in the world and don’t need socialized medicine. It’s a good thing our politicians are honest and our bankers humanitarians.”

It was clear this elderly couple had once been a part of the now disappearing middle class. They looked like people who had paid mortgages and gone to church and quietly made plans for an uneventful retirement.

What had they said to each other last night as they prepared for today? What had they thought when they used the big black markers to make their signs? And tonight when they go home – wherever that might be – how will they feel when they count the money given to them by strangers? Will this money pay for chemotherapy? Buy another tank of oxygen? Will the medical establishment or insurance companies dole out another day or week of life?

I hope that today they have received much more than the money they requested. I hope that they have realized there is no shame in asking for help and that they are not alone. I hope tonight they will have great comfort in being together and as they go to sleep they will feel they are loved and cared for in this unknowable universe.

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,

When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,

Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

 

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.

Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;

Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

 

Songs of the Great Depression: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

( I think the photo is by Stiglitzs)

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