Late afternoon rush hour, Hollywood, this time of year — right after Easter, just a few days left of Passover. Moments after hugging my then 11-year-old goodbye and watching her dad welcome her to his seder, I already missed her.
I was expected at a seder in the West Valley in about 40 minutes. With bumper-to-bumper traffic for blocks along Franklin Ave. toward the freeway, that wasn’t going to happen, and I couldn’t find my cell phone.
At some point I noticed a guy standing in the middle of Franklin just ahead of the now-green light at Highland. People zipped past him until our light turned red. He began walking up the line of stuck cars.
He was about 5’9″, slender with messy blond dreadlocks. At most cars, he’d stop, face the driver and say something at their closed window. I rolled all mine up and locked the doors.
Red lights seemed to hang out and have a beer, green lights to– what green lights? Stress-induced thoughts entered my brain, like what if he’s badgering or insulting people, or worse? As time — as opposed to my car — sped, all I wanted to do was escape before the man could confront me.
Had I been thinking clearly about this holiday, I could have gained perspective on my momentary panic. Compared to the ancient Hebrew slaves’ authentic yearning for exodus and freedom, what did I have to complain about?
As the man closed in, I saw that he held a hand-scrawled cardboard sign, though I couldn’t see what it said. He seemed to be staring not so much at people as beyond them. He smiled, but it seemed directed some place far away.
The light turned green finally and I was able to read his sign, which said THANKS FOR YOUR HELP. How gracious, I thought, as my car picked up speed. Why did I expect the worst from him? How must he feel, walking for three long blocks, trying to appeal to drivers already annoyed by rush hour traffic? Had he been doing this all day, or all week? I fumbled for my wallet but by the time I reached it, I’d passed him.
Seeing him shrink in my rear-view mirror, I remembered how Jews save a special seat and glass of wine every Passover, praying to welcome the stranger who will declare the world ready at last for the Messiah. And thinking about Easter reminded me that Jesus considered as equals, the weakest of people and the stranger; and urged disciples to give to anyone who asked.
What if every driver rejected that man? And if every person who could help rejected all the other men and women and children in need? What if our ungenerous behavior doomed this world forever?
Go back, I scolded myself. But I knew I’d be lucky to arrive at my friend’s seder — starting soon! — half an hour late, even if I continued onto the freeway. Who knew how much longer it would take to get back to Franklin and Highland, and would the guy still be there?
Only after promising myself to return the next day did I begin to feel less ashamed. But the next day my daughter came home and we were too busy. When I did return, the man wasn’t there.
I agonized for days and resolved that from then on, whenever someone asked I would give, even if just a dollar. At first I did it to ease my guilt and maybe help save the world. (Kind of embarrassing to admit that.) But after awhile, giving became almost automatic when a person asked or held up a sign for help– on the street, in front of a store, wherever.
For years, every time I drove toward the 101 freeway on Franklin I’d look for the man with the THANKS FOR YOUR HELP sign, but never saw him again. I hope many people gave him money; or better, that he stopped needing to ask.
Last Sunday, on Easter, I realized that I’ve been doing this for 11 years. Though I rarely think about how it began, it’s become my practice, as holy as giving thanks for abundant blessings. It is, I now understand, one of those blessings.
by Wendy Block
Wendy Block represents the 42nd AD on the DSCC, is a board member and the Recording Secretary of Valley Democrats United, Recording Secretary of the 42nd AD Permanent Precinct Task Force, and a member of the Kitchen Cabinet of Kitchen Table Democracy. She speaks to area groups on behalf of the California Clean Money Campaign. She also volunteers for Barack Obama.
Republished with permission from the Valley Democratics United newsletter, Margie Murray, where it first appeared.