Earlier this month, I took a trip to Baltimore with DH -- work for him, play for me. Baltimore’s nickname is the Charm City. It’s a rough city, kind of down on its luck. Some call it the Harm City. It wasn’t too encouraging when we boarded the light rail from the airport to the hotel and found that the advertisers on public transit were bail bondsmen.
As someone who lives in a small city, the occasional big city trip is a treat. The Inner Harbor was lovely. It’s always good to be on the water, looking at the lines of boats. The American Visionary Art Museum was amazing. When I visit traditional art museums I may admire the workmanship, but the Visionary Art Museum made me want to actually make things out of old doilies and scavenged fabric and furniture.
Then there were the panhandlers. Everywhere. We didn’t even make it to the hotel before a woman on the light rail asked us for a dollar.
What do I do? Do I give to the elderly woman in the wheelchair? The crying woman who says she just needs bus fare to get home, who doesn’t look like she does this on a regular basis. The man who politely tells me he needs bus fare to get to the mental hospital? Am I making myself vulnerable, distracted by digging in my pockets for change or a $1 bill?
It feels dehumanizing to walk past and ignore them, try not to make eye contact. But there are so many, I am afraid to get pulled down into this city’s sucking need.
Oddly, I had been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin on this trip. The book talks about what we do when the person in need isn’t just an abstraction, but a human standing in front of you. Not some amorphous “the homeless” or “the unemployed,” but a man standing on a street corner saying, “Please, anything. Even a penny would help.” When we do help, do we embrace that person, or keep them at arm’s length, as Miss Ophelia does with Topsy?
Baltimore has a water taxi. One route goes around to the Inner Harbor tourist destinations,. Another is a commuter line, carrying people for free from their homes to their jobs at UnderArmour or Domino Sugar. A man and a woman were waiting at Tide Point with me for the boat that goes out to the farthest stop at Canton Waterfront Park, where I was headed.
I asked him if he lived in Baltimore, and he said he did, adding that they’d just lost their place to live. “Hard times for a lot of people,” he added.
“I know,” I said. “My brother lost his job the same time his wife got sick. He lost his house he'd been paying on for years.”
“You know what I’m talking about then,” he said.
“Something’s got to change,” I said. He asked me if I knew where the nearest mission was, but I didn’t. That was the only thing he asked of me.
We rode the boat across gray water, soft gray-white sky past huge ships and lines of yachts. He put a hand on the woman’s leg, squeezed it gently. I fingered the bills in my pocket, the mad money for doing touristy things.
They left the boat at Canton Park. I hesitated, then seeing they’d stopped to sit, pulled a bill out of my pocket, asked the man driving the boat if I had a minute. I ran up to them, “Excuse me sir,” I said. “I don’t want to insult you, but could you use a few quid for a good meal?”
“I sure could.”
I put the folded up bill in his hand, and found myself embracing him. “God bless you, sir,” I told him. I’m not a believer, but it felt like the right thing to say. May God, or the universe or just basic human kindness bless and protect you. As the boat pulled away again, he waved as I left.