What I Learned When I Bought a Homeless Couple Dinner

apples“Excuse me,” he started. “I don’t want to bother you in any way.”

At first I thought he might be trying to sell us something. Or convert us. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been accosted out in public by a religious zealot convinced they could save my soul. Just last week I was approached in the children’s shoe aisle of a Marshall’s by a woman who asked if she could pray for me.

I was in hard bargaining mode with a tween girl over footwear appropriate for a summer wedding. I was rounding the turn into the third circle of hell. I considered asking if she meant pray for my sanity.

But I don’t think that’s what she had in mind, so I demurred. “No, thank you,” said instead, grabbing my daughter’s hand and steering her out of the aisle and away from the strangers who couldn’t respect our right to argue over fashion choices in peace as mothers and daughters have for generations.

I steeled myself for another conversion attempt.

But it didn’t come.

More apologies came instead.

And then an explanation. He and his wife were homeless, he said, and she was three months pregnant. They hadn’t eaten since the day before.

Then the request.

Could we, would we buy them something to eat?

Turning to my husband, I relied on nearly 15 years of marriage to carry on a conversation without saying a single word.

“Should we?” a lift of my eyebrow asked. “I don’t know,” a slide of his eyes responded.

“They didn’t ask for money. That makes a difference,” my own eyes, widening, put forth.

He nodded. The movement told me he was thinking what had been going through my head too: We could say no, but could we feel good about it? We could be taken for a ride, but what would we really lose? Twenty dollars?

We were headed to a baseball game that night, with seats not far behind the dugout. One ticket cost more than the meal we were about to buy. We had two. We aren’t rich, but we have things. Enough things that we’ve never had to throw ourselves on the mercy of perfect strangers. Would we? Could we? I don’t want to know the answer to either question.

I turned to the couple, who’d watched the small dance before them, not speaking.

“OK,” I said. “We’ll buy you dinner.”

I watched the woman’s shoulders fall from near her ears, where they’d been hunched, and heard a sharp sigh of relief.

“Thank you,” the husband said. “Thank you.” We walked a few hundred feet to a fast food restaurant, and followed them inside. While the wife turned into a bathroom, the man asked her what she wanted to eat.

“You know what I like,” she said. He nodded. They had their own means of talking to one another without saying a word.

We approached the counter, just the three of us, and he turned. “What do I do?” he asked. “I don’t want to get anything too expensive?”

If I’d had any doubts about buying dinner for two strangers with a down-on-their-luck sob story, they evaporated then and there.

“Get what you need,” I said. “Get something to eat.”

He did. Two combo meals, one with a Cherry Coke, one with a Dr. Pepper. I pondered for a moment if a pregnant woman should be drinking caffeine before remembering they had much bigger problems to deal with.

My husband paid the bill, and we turned to say goodbye. “This is where we leave you.”

There was more thanks, but we hadn’t done it for the thank yous. I’m not sure why, exactly, we’d done it, aside from the knowledge that if we hadn’t, we would worry that we’d made the wrong choice; aside from the knowledge that, for whatever reason, we could and they could not; aside from the fact that two people had humbled themselves before us, and in doing so had humbled us.


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