A man asked me for money on my way into a convenience store one night in the fall of my freshman year at Yale University. I didn’t want to give money to anyone who would use it to buy alcohol or drugs. But I also didn’t want to be responsible for a man going hungry. So I said, “Come in the store with me. I’ll buy you dinner. You pick the food.”
He asked me to buy him a hot dog on a bun. He asked me to buy him potato chips. I think I volunteered to buy him a soda. I paid. We left the store, we said goodbye. I don’t remember if I ever saw him again.
Soon after I started carrying a loaf of whole wheat bread in my backpack. A few slices of bread was a lot cheaper, per handout, than a whole dinner. It was cheaper, even, than giving a dollar each time. And whole wheat was nutritious. Bread couldn’t be exchanged for alcohol or drugs. In New Haven, there are 700 homeless people at any one time, and many of them beg near campus; I needed something to offer people when they asked for change.
Was I freeing up funds that addicts could then use to go and buy drugs? I did wonder this. But what else could I do?
Maimonides says: If you don’t trust a man enough to give him charity, offer him encouragement in any case. The point is that everyone who might need our humanity should get it. I tried to live by that, even though I don’t know if I was aware of Maimonides’s particular statement at the time. I struck up conversations when I handed out bread. That led to some wonderfully close ties.
There was the woman who had been a student in Yale’s School of Drama for some time, until schizophrenia took her sanity (she would still perform Chaucer and Macbeth, beautifully, by heart). There was the man who insisted I take the shirt he had received from Goodwill. There was the woman who sold flowers she found in gardens. When a group of kind students found her full-time work painting houses, she told me she was scared of the responsibility that came with actually having money.
Here’s another story, from years later: I put some bread in a cardboard box next to an old woman I passed in Penn Station, during my commute home. She cried real tears when she whispered to me, over and over, “thank you.”
Here’s the message in all this. People who ask for help are asking for a connection. We should give them at least that.
Abe Mezrich is a writer living in Riverdale, N.Y. Read more of his work at TorahParsha.com.