I ate dinner out tonight. Sometimes I just have to get myself out of the house even if I don't have someone to meet for dinner. So I went to Blue Frog, which is a very American-style restaurant. It's comfort food and it's close to our apartment. I took my notebook with me to make lists while I waited for my food, because no one likes to be alone at a restaurant AND be idle. One has to have a magazine or a laptop. I write. I'm sure I still look peculiar, but I don't mind.
I did look up from time to time to look out the window. Sitting on the second floor, I had a clear view of the street. I noticed a couple of men standing on the other side, not really doing anything. The thought crossed my mind that they may have been contemplating stealing one of the bikes in front of them, but they did not do this. They simply sat down on the sidewalk. I went back to making notes on all the things I want to eat when I go home. (This list makes me laugh, especially since it has WENDY'S on it!)
Throughout dinner, I gazed out the window a few more times. One of the men had gone, but the other was still there, milling about. He had a knit cap on and a red plastic bag in one hand. I couldn't help but wonder if that bag held all his worldly possessions. In the other hand, he held a small, white cup. I figured he was asking for spare change, although he didn't seem to be aggressively seeking out targets. He mostly squatted against the wall. I watched him approach a few people, but it was a meager attempt.
Something struck me about this scene. Now, since moving to a big city, in China no less, I am no stranger to people begging. Going to touristy areas is to agree to an absolute siege. "Hello! Money!" Then they shove a baby in your face. Not a good scene. But being able to observe this one man, far removed and for a decent period of time, I felt for him. I started wondering if I had some change on me. I normally do not do this, as sometimes you get yourself into more muck if you actually give to the clinking cup. But my gut said the guy needed it.
I watched him help a girl maybe my age or a little younger with her bike as she tried to lock it up. He held it upright for her as she fed the lock through the wheel and I was glad to see she smiled and said thank you. Then she made the universal sign for 'no money' by reaching in her pockets and shrugging, mouthing the words "sorry". I can't judge. I have done this. (Back in Columbus, it was usually actually true, as I used my debit card for most things and rarely carried cash. Perhaps a convenient circumstance for my conscience?) She then walked away with her friends to no doubt get some dinner. That decided it. I had watched him do a good deed.
I contemplated a 5, but then decided on a 10 RMB note, which is about $1.50 U.S. I knew he could get a good meal for this, two if he went to a simple noddle shop. I figured I shouldn't be stingy if I was to make the effort. I just couldn't stand the thought of that guy staring at all the rich people in the restaurants, paying for overpriced food, and then not getting dinner himself.
So I packed up and left the restaurant. My heart sank a little, as I couldn't see the man at first, but then I noticed he was sitting nestled behind the line of bikes across the street. With the bill in my gloved hand, I crossed the street. He definitely noticed and for a split second I think he thought about showing me his cup, but I was too fast. I put the bill into his hand and looked him in the eyes. I said the smallest little "Merry Christmas" for lack of anything else to say. The handshake quickly became a warm, four-handed embrace, the 10 kuai in the middle. He said "Xie xie!" which is Mandarin for "thank you."
His genuinely grateful eyes almost broke my heart, so with a quick final squeeze I turned and walked away, choking on the moment. I didn't look back. The cold night air felt good on my face as I walked home. I found myself wondering what his name might have been.