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Compassion to Go

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"Excuse me, sir, but could you spare some change?"

My face was buried in my coat to shield it from the wind, but I looked up. It was 4 AM and I was coming off the late shift, ground down and famished, looking for something to eat before bed. My search had led to an all-night deli on Canal and 31st.

"All I want is some food. Could you spare a little change?" Seated against the wall next to the parking lot, the homeless man strained to make eye contact.

"Well, yes, actually, I can," I thought, conscious of the small wad of $1 bills stuffed in my front pocket. But just because you can spare it doesn't mean you always do.

He was middle-aged, wearing a hooded sweatshirt discarded from a Roosevelt University fund-raiser. His knees were tucked against his chest as he leaned against the building, and he was clutching some old copies of Jet and TV Guide, offering them in return for a donation. When I declined, he nodded politely and looked for someone else.

I stepped into the Maxwell Street Depot and took my place in line. While I waited, the homeless man walked in. His focus was fixed on his left palm, where he sifted through a small pile of change. As soon as the deli owner saw him, he confronted him.

"You go," he said in a heavy eastern European accent. "You go now!"

Displaying his coins, the homeless man said all he wanted was a cup of coffee. The owner glared, taking his money before starting off to prepare the drink.

But the man was encouraged. "You could spare just a little food," he begged. "C'mon, man." The deli owner slammed the cup on the table. "You want it, you pay for it," he said sternly. "Now get out. Go!"

"Motherfucker!" the homeless man shouted. "Why do you always got to be like that?" He continued his protest as he walked out and headed back to his spot next to the parking lot.

"I'll have a Polish with everything," I said, then after a pause, "and a double cheeseburger." The owner quickly prepared the order, fries included. "Oh, and can you put that double cheese in a separate sack?" The owner wished me a pleasant evening, and I grabbed the two sacks and turned back out into the cold. On the way to my car, I passed the homeless guy. He was gripping the Styrofoam cup with both hands, feeling the heat.

"Here you go," I said, handing him the cheeseburger. "I hope you like it with everything." He looked up from his huddle, then placed the cup on the ground beside him. He reached for the bag slowly and looked inside. "It's a double cheeseburger," I said. "Now, you have a good evening."

I turned to walk back to my car, then looked back. The man had the burger open, flat in his palms, examining it carefully. "I don't trust them. I bet they put something in it," he said as he began tossing chunks of meat onto the ground. "Did they put something in this?"

"They didn't know it was for you," I shouted. "They didn't know." The man glanced up for a second, only to return to the mutilated burger falling from his hand. "I know they put something in it. They are trying to kill me." He shredded the last of the meal onto the street and returned to his coffee.

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