I'd been sitting, reading my book probably fifteen minutes before they came in the door. I looked up at the sound of the bell announcing an arrival mostly out of habit, but I immediately recognized them, the same faces that had popped out the window of an RV parked along the road as I was walking home from the laundromat the other day.
“Did you just do laundry? You have any spare change, brother?”
I nodded quickly in assent and dug into my pocket, finding a dollar in quarters, resolving that I'd done my part as I placed the money in his grimy hand.
“Thanks, God bless ya, brother!” he said, as I began to walk away.
“No problem at all,” I told him.
I remember thinking, “One dollar isn't even enough for one load in the washer. Did I really help at all?”
And here they are again, in the laundromat, and he recognizes me immediately and beelines in my direction.
“Hey brother! Any chance you gonna have any change left over today?”
Smiling, but buying time, I said, “I don't know. Let me switch mine over to the dryer and I'll let you know.”
So he plopped down on the next bench over from me, her following, and I could already smell the reek. I got up to check the washer. Still 10 minutes left.
I sat back down and resubmitted myself to my reading as I tried to feel how much money I had left in my pocket. I pulled out my phone to text a friend. Then I left it, clearly visible, on my lap.
It wasn't even a minute before the voice was back, coming from that bench just to my right.
“You got a cell phone, brother? Any chance I could use it to make a call?”
A little off guard, I asked, “Yeah, who do you need to call?”
I don't know why I asked that. It's not like it mattered to me. I guess you feel a right to ask that question when someone is borrowing your phone, but it still felt like a jerk move.
“Oh sure!” I said, as if excited about his answer, and I handed the phone over.
I watched as he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and strained to decipher the numbers he'd written on it. He passed it off to her (maybe it was her handwriting), and together they pieced together the numbers, dialed, and pressed call.
I can't pretend to have heard the whole conversation, but I could hear the voice on the other end, and it wasn't happy for this interruption in their morning. His sister was not pleased to have heard from him. The conversation was almost over immediately, with him pleading and apologizing from the get-go. Other customers in the laundromat looked over.
I lifted my book a little higher in front of my face.
“Just a couple hundred bucks, that'll get us through May,” he is saying. “We've got a guy that will let us park the RV on his land for cheap, stupid cheap.” And apparently in May, from some sort of settlement, his lawyer has him expecting over a million dollars. “I'll buy you anything in June, sis. Something you've always wanted, something stupid.”
This went on for what felt like eternity. Him pleading, begging for help, and that voice on the other end sounding annoyed, disappointed, trapped. I listened as his voice started to rise, crack, gain desperation.
I wondered if I should have ever given him my phone. What if he has an anger problem?
Finally, the voice on the other end has had enough, and hangs up. He sits there for a second, fuming, while his friend tries to calm him down.
“Bitch!” he emits, not exactly in a yell, but in a voice that could be heard throughout the laundromat.
I avoided making eye contact with anyone else around. I stood back up to check the laundry again, walking past them on the way. Spin cycle, almost done. I glance at him, to see if he looks ready to give the phone back to me. Nope. He's looking through his pockets again. And she's looking through hers. Who are they going to call now?
I wait as my laundry finishes in the washer, then transfer my clothes to a dryer. I put in all the quarters I need, then carefully transfer the $1.75 required for a load in the washer to a separate pocket, for when he asks for it. At least I can help them do some laundry today.
I sit back down to my book as they find the scrap of paper they were looking for, another number. I realize how uncomfortable I am, just four feet away, and they smell bad. I wonder about my phone. I'll have to disinfect it before I use it again. Can a phone retain a smell?
I try to read again, but once again I'm listening as his second phone call goes through. The voice on the other end of this one is male, and may be the caller's brother.
“Brother! How are you doing?” the caller has his winning voice back on, once again launching into sales mode to try to find money to survive. But he doesn't need to. The voice on the other end of this line is excited, overjoyed to hear from this man. The call lasts only minutes. The voice retains its enthusiasm throughout, and I watch as the caller transforms from a desperate, scared soul, to one with hope. Whoever this person is that they've called has agreed to play some role in changing their lives.
He hangs up, a smile across his dirty, scarred face. His teeth don't look healthy either. He looks over at me and hands the phone back,
“Thanks so much, brother.”
I smile in return, and while I'm reaching into my pocket to give them some laundry money, they're already out the door, walking down the street, I presume, to their RV. Now they have hope, there's no point in waiting around. They have purpose anew.
As I walked home that day, I couldn't help but compare the differences in the two phone calls. Perhaps the first person was someone who'd helped these folks before, too many times, and was tired of their charity being thrown away. Perhaps they just held a grudge against this couple. Perhaps they had nothing extra to give. But whenever I thought about that second person, I couldn't help but think of the parable of the prodigal son. This was the humiliating return, that part of the story where the desperate son returns home, hoping only for survival by any means, even as a servant, but instead is greeted with warmth and love. An equal.
Suddenly I felt shamed and judgmental in my interactions. So “have” and “have not.” Unequal. What if my first reaction, like the second voice on the phone, was one of joy and excitement? What if I had treated these folks like beloved family, not someone to give a dollar of laundry money to, but someone to share the experience of laundry with? I had time. I could have sat with them, shared stories with them. Yet I was doing what I could to:
a) get rid of them, preferably as quickly as possible
b) assuage my conscience that I'd done enough to help.
Sometimes, we need a little kick in the butt to remind us who we're truly called to be.