Better Angels

image

He and the dog were seated at the corner of the busy intersection. Every day for a week, I’d spotted them on my ride to work. He was middle-aged, scruffy, bearded. The dog, a German Shepherd mix, sat quietly by his side, and with gentle brown eyes surveyed the passing traffic. Next to the dog’s water dish was a sign: HOMELESS. HUNGRY. PLEASE HELP.

“The cops should do something about that guy,” said Doug. “He doesn’t belong in this part of town.”

“I feel bad for them… I wonder if the dog’s hungry?”

Doug laughed. “Does he look hungry?”

No, I guess he didn’t.

I studied the man next to him. “He doesn’t look too good, though…”

“Probably shoots the cash he gets straight into his arm. Well, he won’t be getting any of my money. He probably makes more in a day than we do.”

“How do you figure?”

“The world’s full of suckers – don’t be one of ’em.”

Doug pulled out his phone and started checking messages.

As we waited for the light to change, I watched the man. He stared straight ahead, not looking at the cars, apparently used to being ignored.

Doug looked up. “All the taxes we pay for social programs… why are these people still on the street? Isn’t that what Welfare’s for? There are shelters… If anyone’s homeless, it’s because they want to be.”

I thought of my grandfather. He’d been no stranger to hard times, but he’d always shared with those who had a need. My father would get exasperated with him, but Pop would smile. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he’d say. He believed it, too. My brother and I were fortunate; we never did without. In truth, we were a little spoiled. Pop would chide us for our selfishness, admonishing us to let our ‘better angels’ prevail.

Where had my better angels gone? Pop wouldn’t have weighed a man’s need before trying to help him. Β Why did I?

Opening my purse, I withdrew my wallet. Inside was a ten. I beckoned to the man. “Here, take this.”

He looked at me and smiled. “God bless.”

As we pulled away, Doug frowned.

“It’s two lattes at Starbucks,” I said quietly. “I can afford it.”

“That’s not the point. People like you are part of the problem!”

Maybe he’s right. Or maybe not.

When Doug looked at the man, he saw a social problem. I saw a person. I’m not naive: I know I didn’t change anyone’s world with a ten dollar bill – unless you count my own.

I dropped Doug off in front of our building.

“You coming?”

“Not today… think I’ll take a sick day.”

“You’re not sick!”

He was wrong. I was sick of my apathy, and only just realizing it.

Disgusted, Doug turned away.

I pulled out my phone and Googled a number.

“Jefferson County Food Pantry,” answered the woman.

“How can I help?” I asked.

Better angels…

I drove past my office.

__________________
World Count: 498

This story is in response to a challenge by ThainInVain to write a 500-word flash fiction based on the prompt: while driving to work one morning, you decide to drive past the office and keep on driving.

The story is also influenced in part by a quote from Charles Dickens: ‘…So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.’ (Charles Dickens, ‘Barnaby Rudge’)

About Kate Loveton

Aspiring novelist. Avid reader of fiction. Reviewer of books. By day, my undercover identity is that of meek, mild-mannered legal assistant, Kate Loveton, working in the confines of a stuffy corporate law office; by night, however, I'm a super hero: Kate Loveton, Aspiring Novelist and Spinner of Tales. My favorite words are 'Once upon a time... ' Won't you join me on my journey as I attempt to turn a hobby into something more?
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52 Responses to Better Angels

  1. Such a great way of mobilizing social consciousness, Kate. The human touch, the self-grappling in the narrator, stir compassion. Holistically well done. =)

  2. W. K. Tucker says:

    Lovely story, Kate. Like your character, I see the person. If my husband knew how much money I handed out to strangers and friends alike in need, he’d probably faint. 😊

  3. Sally says:

    We should all take a lesson from this story. The man on the street might not be able to change, but we can, and maybe if we could all be a little nicer to each other, the world would be a better place. I remember watching a documentary once about a tribe from an exotic island somewhere (this is years ago and my memory is useless, so sorry for lack of correct details) coming to live briefly in the UK. They were appalled at how poorly we treated our homeless, that we allow them to go hungry, and to continue to live as outcasts on the street. It was interesting to look at things through their eyes, as in their way of life this would never happen. Everyone in the tribe looked after their own – an individual would never get into the sort of place emotionally/mentally that led to social alienation that led to addiction and poverty, that led to life on the streets. Obviously, despite the fact that materially and financially there is so much here, they were relieved to get back home to their simple life and the personal riches of their particular society. They saw the west as a soulless place and perhaps they were right.

  4. stacilys says:

    Oh Kate, this is wonderful. I’m really impressed by your talent. You seem to give it your all.
    This issue is such a sticky one indeed. Sometimes I get stuck, not knowing if I should or shouldn’t give. The other day I pulled into the parking lot at a supermarket, when a man came over to me, with his adult (maybe late teens) son, asking for money. He was unemployed, had rent to pay, and his son clearly had some sort of mental deficiency. At first I didn’t want to give, for there are so many that want a hand-out. He asked me for any help that I was willing to, or wanted to give. I only gave him a bit of change. He thanked me and went on with his son. I felt that he was so sincere and truly in need. So I called to him and gave him 10 Brazilian Reais. I know it’s not much, but I’m sure it was an enormous help to this man and his son.
    Bless you Kate and keep writing strong.
    πŸ™‚

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Staci, thanks for sharing the story about the man with the teenage son. And good for you for giving him the 10 Brazilian Reais.

      I don’t think we can ever get past the struggle we undergo when we see someone begging. We wonder why they are begging, why aren’t they working, are they truly in need or running a scam, are they just lazy, will they use the money for food or will they use it for drugs or drink, and so on and so on. The truth is that some people are scammers, are lazy… but I think there are also a lot of needy people on the streets.

      I wonder what it means to be charitable. Are we supposed to weigh our giving against a checklist of worthiness – or are we, who have the means to do so, tasked to give with a free and grateful spirit. Grateful not only because of ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ but because maybe in the giving we exercise our humanity in a good way – one that is empathetic and compassionate.

      I’ve thought about the difference between giving to those whose need we come face to face with as opposed to giving to a corporate charity, one that doles out money as the organization sees fit. In the end, I rather liked my protagonist’s solution. She just asked how she could help. Maybe donations to the local church pantry or community kitchens is the way to go.

      I don’t know. These are just things that run through my mind sometimes when I am approached by those who appear to be in need. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for the lovely comments about my writing! ❀

      • stacilys says:

        What a great reply Kate. Thank you for sharing your views on this.

        I have to confess, I do have a bit of a problem with those in well-to-do countries asking for money on the street. THere are so many social programs and the government (at least in Canada) provides for those that are in need. It may not be much, but their needs are met. I remember way back, right before I became a Christian, I was on social welfare. And for the few months after my conversion as well. The government offered for me to do a training course in office administration. They gave me money to buy office-worthy clothes, and then I did the course for three (I think it was three) months. I had a month-long, hands-on in a real office out in the real world at the end of the course as well (unpaid of course). Once that was done, I was offered a three month contract, then another 3 month contract, and then on full time. I stayed with that company for 5 years, right up until I left Canada for YWAM. I’ve seen real misery and poverty in other countries (India, Nepal, Afghanistan…) so I find it hard to believe that there are those that are truly in need in first world nations. Not to say that there aren’t. Some people are in a real rut, and just don’t know how to get out. It’s sad. I try to use discernment.

        I can’t give much, because I don’t have much, but I would prefer to help out those who are really really in need. Then use discernment when asked on the street.

        When considering giving towards an organization, I think it’s best to be sure you know where the money is going, and if it’s worth sending the money for that specific thing. There’s this one organization in Afghanistan, Omega International. I really like them. I know that any small amount of funds I send them is going directly to the project I dedicate it too.

        Thanks again Kate.
        πŸ™‚

  5. This is a great take on the prompt, Kate and something that has crossed all of our minds at some point in our lives.

    I couldn’t count the amount of times that I have walked past homeless people sitting in subways and the like and feeling so guilty for just walking past. I am always stuck in the conundrum of not knowing what to do for the best – if I give them some money will they use it to buy drink or drugs?

    I think we also only see what we want to and sometimes we deny that those people living rough on the streets might be just the same as us if not for a certain twist of fate.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Heather, I’m the same way – walking past, looking the other way. If a dog or a family is with a man, I often tend to give them money. I’m never sure whether this is a good idea or not. But I am always aware that I waste money on trinkets and my beloved Starbucks :D. And while the truth is that I earned the money and it is mine to spend as I see it, I am often plagued with guilt if I look the other way.

      Too many hours spent in Sunday school as a kid, I guess! πŸ˜€

      Thanks for the interesting comments, my friend. ❀

      • I went to hear a former homeless guy speak at an event in London earlier this year and while I found his words fascinating and inspiring, I did still have a lot of misgivings as to whether stopping and talking to a homeless person is the right thing to do, especially as I am a young woman.

        While I can imagine that a big burly man would not have the same misgivings, I do wonder whether stopping and talking to a homeless man in the London Underground or a subway is asking for trouble.

        I am certainly not suggesting that all homeless people are going to attack young women, but it does give me cause for concern and makes me less likely to want to stop and give money to them, which is sad because I am probably tarring all homeless people with the same brush, which probably says more about me than it does them.

        A thought-provoking post, Kate ❀

  6. Raw and tender. We should all be part of the problem if this is what it takes to fix it. We could use more better angels. I used to teach the children of homeless working families. They were decent people who could not afford the high rent in our area. Not everyone who begs has integrity. Not everyone who begs is a bum. I can’t tell the difference. Would the dog choose another companion? Not by this image. Very insightful, very well written, Kate. Love it.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Sharon, thank you, thank you, for such terrific comments! The dog in the image in the man’s arms really got to me. I’d written the story first, and then – serendipity! – found the photo.

      I was listening to the news this morning, and a woman (an actress or singer I’m not familiar with) stood before an audience to talk about her youth as a hungry child. In spite of our programs, somehow people still manage to fall through the safety nets for whatever reason.

      The woman went on to tell the things she would do as a child just so she could eat – dumpster diving, prostitution, making friends with children whose parents had enough food so that she could partake. It was a very raw and moving story, all the more so because she told it so starkly.

      • One of the families with whom I worked had 4 kids. One got so ill he had to be hospitalized. Of course the kids’ education was hijacked and interrupted by the awful situation they lived in. I asked the mom if she would share the hardest part of living in a car and moving to a new regional park every 2 weeks so they could set up camp for a short stay until they had to move again. (Regional parks in Orange County, maybe the state, allow up to 2 weeks of uninterrupted camping and then require you to move on.) She said her kids being ill a lot was difficult for them (parents) to face because they felt responsible for being so transient. The other thing was that they just couldn’t cook food often and so they mostly ate cold sandwiches and cereal. By the time they got off work – both parents worked – picked up the kids, and drove sometimes 20 miles to the current park, it was late and dark, especially in winter. Everyone was hungry and they struggled to help the kids with homework, to wash them up a bit, and let them get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Hot food was too much a luxury most nights and impossible in the mornings. They had to get the kids up by 5 or 6 to get everyone where they needed to be for the day. Set up a camp stove? No way.
        You might ask why they didn’t get county help. The peculiar thing about homelessness is that of the very few places that offer free or supported housing, most will not house families (meaning dads) though they will take a mom and kids. This particular intact family didn’t want to break up even though it would have meant a temporary roof over the kids’ heads. Funny, isn’t it, how short our social services fall, how poorly we define need?
        Lots of the men we see on the street are homeless vets. Anyone with a pet cannot find a place that will accept an animal, and yet the animal may be the only thing the homeless person has in the world. Since my husband is a Vietnam vet, this just breaks my heart. These men served our country and most people turn their backs on them. I wonder what mirror we are able to look into and see anyone of worth looking back at us?
        We think we know what’s best for everyone but we come up with standards that suit those of us who have plenty while overlooking the real problems of those who are in need.
        Yes, some of them are drunks and addicts, some are violent, many have criminal backgrounds, and nearly all of them have serious emotional issues that make them hard to work with or be around. But most of us who live in decent homes are also sometimes miserable people to live with and have all kinds of problems of our own. We are just luckier.
        Just look at that dog in your photo. Do you think he would opt to live in a warm, dry home if it meant he had to leave the man who is holding him in his lap?
        I’ve rambled on and on here. You’ve managed to convey the despair and the humanity of this awful situation in a short story. Well done, Kate. Who knows what action may come out of your story?

  7. Cathy says:

    I love this, what a wonderful post.

  8. Excellent story. Packed full of emotion, and touches on real social issues in a compelling way.

  9. Great job, Kate. What a sticky problem. Apathy. Your Doug is a true voice. There is no easy answer but you had clear sides and I’m glad your narrator sacrificed her two lattes to help. Pandering to pan-handlers.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Thanks, Cindy. I’m glad the narrator realized that two $5 lattes were easily sacrificed, but I’m even happier that she decided to do something constructive by asking a Food Pantry what she could do to help. Doug accused her of being part of the problem; but another famous man said that if you’re not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. I think the narrator saw her way as being part of the solution.

      But you are so right: there are no easy answers, and I suspect that the poor will always be with us, for whatever reason. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. I was so moved by your piece, Kate! Thank you for writing it and bringing to light how a simple act of kindness (your smile) can make a difference. So many people are afraid to give money to homeless people and/or have the view of Doug. It’s a shame, really, because if each of us gave them a helping hand, there wouldn’t be a homeless problem. Like you wrote, we can donate food to a food bank or donate time. It’s about helping those in need, not scoffing at the “social issue”. You’ve inspired me and I thank you! πŸ™‚

  11. Touching, Kate. you have a big heart. I have the same problem when I offer money to someone homeless and my husband disapproves. We don’t have a huge problem here because we have good, new homeless shelter. But I still see men and women on busy highway corners where there are turn lanes, some with dogs. A lot of them are vets, and my heart always goes out to vets.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Yes, a lot of them are vets, Noelle. Like you, I always feel badly for the vets. To come home to a life of begging after serving one’s country just doesn’t seem right, does it? Thank you for reading!

  12. markbialczak says:

    I love it Kate. Absolutely. And there’s so much truth in your fiction in my world here in Syracuse.

  13. A really emotional story for this prompt, brilliant piece! πŸ™‚

  14. naomiharvey says:

    I love your stories because you always, without fail, get an emotional response from me.

    Homelessness is something I have always found difficult to see, but I rarely give money because of my mother. She always told me “Don’t give money to a homeless person because they may not be in the right frame of mind to use it in the best way. Instead of potentially paying for a bottle of whiskey or next hit of drugs, go and buy them a meal and clean bottled water. Buy them a blanket or a sleeping bag. That way you KNOW you are helping and not just enabling any bad habits they may have.” I tend to follow her advice.

  15. Pingback: Flash Fiction Challenge – Week 40 Submissions | Thain in Vain

  16. What a thoughtful tale, Kate. The two perspectives on the homeless are accurate. Many times, we see them as lazy and being there by choice, but often there mental health and/or addiction issues. The ending was perfect! Also, love the picture! It’s heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time! Excellent take on the prompt! TiV

  17. fayelucinda8 says:

    This is lovely, great contrasting characters. It sounds like a really interesting challenge too, something to get you creating. I must check it out!

  18. What a great story! It’s very well-structured and written with such feeling.

  19. What a great tale, Kate. I have, on occasion, been overwhelmed by the scale of need. Thirty years ago, in Lagos, Nigeria, beggars were almost forming a queue, lining the streets and thoroughfares. Many were disabled, some badly. A few children were even rumoured to have been deliberately disabled by their parents, to provide a source of income (whether there was any foundation to that I preferred not to know). It gives one a feeling of impotence. Clearly, one can’t help them all, but what is one to do? Give ten cents each to one hundred, or ten naira to one; and if the latter, how does one select the recipient of one’s largesse?

  20. Mark Gardner says:

    Yay, Kate! I’m glad you “turned” the prompt. I especially liked the line that started with, “I’m not naive:”

  21. Kate,
    You don’t have a heart that just beats, you have a heart that feels and a feeling heart
    for me is worth more than anything else on earth. Of course as Willow says the photo is perfect, a friend who will you love you unconditionally to the end and sees you are more than your circumstances.
    Bless you for this sharing.
    A big hug
    john

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi John, I’ve been seeing dogs sitting alongside beggars on the streets a lot more frequently. I suppose there may be something to what you say about the unconditional love. If you’re invisible to others, a dog must be a comforting reminder that you can still be loved. Thank you for reading – and for supporting my stories. πŸ™‚

  22. willow1945 says:

    Wonderfully touching, Kate, and that photo is perfect. I hope I listen to my better angels most of the time. We never know what has brought someone to that pass and if, given the same circumstances, if we would have done so much better.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Thanks, Willow. I had written the story first – and then found the photo and was happy that it was so close to what I’d envisioned. Thanks for the kind words about the story! ❀

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