It's been cold here lately. Really cold; it dropped down to 42 degrees last night, and coupled with the gusting wind we've been having, that makes it...well, even colder.
When I went out to get something out of my truck around 10:00 I decided that going outside barefoot in a T-shirt in this weather isn't such a great idea. When I came back in I sneaked by the thermostat to crank the heater up to 65. To hell with wearing a sweater; we've got heat and I'm gonna use it. Fear not, Beth didn't see me do it.
Around midnight I remembered I had to get milk for Zoe for the morning and smokes for me. In a nod to the frosty temps I donned a sweatshirt before jumping in the car. I normally wouldn't bother -- I was only going from the house to the car to the store and back again; I don't need to bundle up just for that -- but it was 42 degrees. Cold. I'm a wuss, I bundled up.
Even with the sweatshirt I was cold when I got to the store. Car heaters are wonderful things but they take a little while to kick in. The 10 or so blocks I drove wasn't long enough for it to start pushing warm air.
I entered the store blowing on my hands. Cold. Hit the money machine, and while I read a Variety and waited for my cash to spit out an older man squeezed past me, commenting "It's cold out there." I didn't really look up as I replied, "Cold, hell. It's freezing!" As I took my money from the machine I realized he was standing a few feet off, watching me. Waiting. Homeless.
"I just came in to get warm," he said.
I felt like an asshole. First, mainly, because of my offhand "freezing" comment. Like that was a news flash for this guy. Secondly because I felt that brief flash of anger as I realized he was going to hit me up for money and had followed me in to where I was getting money. We both knew I wasn't going to give him a twenty, but we also both knew he was going to get me on my way out -- when we'd both know I had change.
I gave him a half-smile, maybe a curt nod as I walked past him, then went scavenging for Zoe's milk, my smokes and a midnight snack of burrito and Frito's. I paid for my stuff and held a buck aside for him.
When I left the store, sure enough, there he was. He didn't say a word, just looked at me. I walked over, gave him the buck and felt like a jerk for not giving him a five. He thanked me, saying "nobody wants to help you out anymore." And shivered.
I shivered too, but I had a car waiting 10 feet away and a warm house a half mile beyond that. This guy was wearing jeans and a long-sleeve shirt and that was it. No coat, no hat, no gloves. Just pants and a thin shirt against the cold. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders.
"It's really cold out here," he said.
"Go inside, get a cup of hot coffee," I said helpfully, with thirty-some dollars in my pocket and a bag of food under my arm. "Good luck," I said as I got in my warm car and drove away.
Get some coffee. Good luck. What an asshole.
I know it's not my fault he was homeless and hungry and cold, I know I'm not in a position to find him a home and three squares a day, I know he made the choices that put him in that position and that they were his responsibility. I can't save the world, I can't save this guy. But I could have helped him more than I did. I bought him maybe five minutes of getting outside of something warm, but then he was going to be back in the cold night, shivering. Not my fault, not my problem. And yet it was.
When I got home I went straight to the garage. It's a mess back there, piled high with boxes we haven't unpacked yet, stuff we haven't tossed yet. Amid that mess was a coat I haven't worn in years, a thigh-length down ski jacket that kept me sweating when I used to wear it skiing. That coat was made for nights like this.
I grabbed the coat and jumped back in the car, headed back up to the store. I felt a little better now, knowing I was going to be helping this guy stay warm. It wasn't much, not when I have so much and he had so little, but it was better than a measley buck, better than anything else he might get that night. It beat the hell out of shirtsleeves at 42 degrees. It wasn't much, but at least I'd sleep better in my warm bed in my warm house knowing he was bundled up in a down coat in that cold night.
When I got there, he was gone.