Sharon had known all week that Saturday’s priority would be gift shopping; the foreknowledge helped her dread the day more acutely. The month’s gift purchases had crept up on her: a present for a destination wedding in Mexico that she wasn’t able to attend, a present for a wedding in Orange County she didn’t want to attend but was going to anyway, and a present for a baby shower for her best work friend that she was genuinely happy about attending, even though it was in Santa Monica.
Sharon’s weekly take home pay as an accountant at a law firm would more than cover the gift expenses. But she prided herself on diverting every extra penny into her 401 k — she was determined to retire early. And she not so secretly resented the hundred or so dollars that she wouldn’t get to squirrel away into her retirement account. But not buying a gift for a wedding or a baby shower was akin to not taking an employer match on a retirement account — unacceptable.
She planned her shopping route carefully, but hitting a Williams Sonoma at the Glendale Galleria, the Crate and Barrel at the Grove, and the Toys R Us in Burbank took up the lion’s share of the morning. She knew that if she didn’t ship the Mexico gift that day, she’d wouldn’t ship it in a timely manner, so she headed to the post office even thought she knew there would be a line on a Saturday. She found herself hungry and irritable as she carefully opened her car door, taking care not to nick the shiny black BMW she had parked next to in the post office parking lot.
At the entrance to the post office, a man in rumpled khakis and a polo shirt stood grimly next to his wife. He held a clumsily lettered sign that read OUT OF WORK BUT LOOKING. NEED HELP TO FEED MY FAMILY. GOD BLESS. The wife held a plastic cup which she shook at intermittent intervals. In front of them sat their four year old (or so) daughter. The gaze of the parents were averted, but the daughter watched Sharon walk up the steps. Unnerved at the daughter’s wide and unblinking eyes, it was Sharon that looked away first.
But Sharon continued to think about the trio as she stood in line. She ran the numbers on how much a child that age would cost to raise. Did the man have no extended family to ask for help? Couldn’t the woman get a job, or was it enough work taking care of a four year old? How did the man lose his job? How long had the man been out of a job? How long he been looking for work? Where did they live? Where did they sleep? Were they actually homeless?
After purchasing packaging for the gift (which she hated to do; the markup on the supplies at a post office was astronomical), wrapping it, and enduring the hour long line to ship the gift (an expensive, decorative fruit bowl, insurance excluded, gift receipt included) Sharon avoided eye contact with the homeless family as she exited the post office. The woman gave a half hearted jingle of the change in her cup as Sharon passed her.
It was the sound that pricked Sharon’s conscience.
You can easily give them twenty dollars, it said. Surely you can forgo drinks tonight to keep on budget so that little girl can get a hot meal one night this week. What’s it really going to cost you?
So instead of going home to make herself a spinach and raspberry smoothie, Sharon got into her car and drove to the closest ATM — which happened to be a Chase. She swallowed her frustration at the $3.50 service fee (she banked at Wells Fargo) and pushed the buttons so the machine would spit out a twenty. At the last minute, she changed her mind and pushed a few more buttons so it would spit out two twenties and drove back to the post office.
As the post office parking lot was now full, she circled the block three times, finally found street parking a block away. Vaulting out of the car, she nearly dropped the two twenties into oncoming traffic. As she jogged to the post office, she wondered if the family still be there.
But when she arrived to the front of the post office, they weren’t. Panicked, she caught them out of the corner of her eye, rounding the corner, headed in the direction of the parking lot. She hustled after them.
Upon rounding the corner, she saw no one on the sidewalk. But there was a man fastening his daughter into the backset of the BMW, and a woman in the front seat, pulling dollar bills out of a cup.
Maybe the car is the only asset they have, she thought idly.
Sharon watched the man get in the drivers seat, talking animately to his wife as they rolled down their windows. As the car drove by, Sharon locked eyes with the daughter in the backseat. The girl’s bright eyes and conflicted expression left no doubt in Sharon’s mind that she knew what her parents were doing. Especially when Sharon heard the woman say to the man, “Bigger haul today than yesterday.” Sharon realized it wasn’t embarrassment in the girl’s eyes — it was shame.
Tears pricking in her eyes, Sharon pocked the twenties as she watched the black BMW drive away. She walked slowly back to her car, wishing that she could have smiled at the girl when she had the chance.