Now that the heat of the summer has relocated to my feet for the winter, I think I can tell about that strange hot, flaming hot, day in August when I gave my sandals away.
For some years now my small affliction has been something called “peripheral neuropathy” aka “The Hotfoot.” Without going into the “woe is me“ details it’s an affliction of the nerves that makes your brain feel as if your feet are burning when no such thing is happening; think “fake news from your feet.” It’s a mystery and it has no known “cure.” It’s persistent and it can be annoying, even painful, especially at night when trying to sleep.
As a result, shoes have become important to me. Of late, the shoes that work in the hot, hot summers of Chico, California, are sandals. I wear them all the time and as a result, I often have to buy new ones. I did this back at the beginning of August when the days in Chico averaged 99+ degrees — with the highs coming in at around 110. Ordered online the sandals came in two days and I was pleased to have them. They fit well and gave my feet a little less heat even when walking across the asphalt parking lot in the midday sun. The brand-new sandals were a “win,” as the kids say.
New sandals on I got into my car and drove off to the Safeway market about two miles down the main road in this part of town. The car was, of course, air-conditioned as was the apartment I left and the store I was bound for. Inside it was around 72 and outside it was well above 100. The sidewalks of the summer town looked hot and were hot. Very hot. Even in the shade, which was sparse at midday. Sparser still were the people out on the burning sidewalks at midday.
Except for him.
I was heading south on the road to Safeway, music on the radio, and nicely cooled thank you.
He was heading north on the sidewalk. No music and no anything else. He looked previously young and had a large and food-stained white beard. Below that, his chest was bare and smeared with the caied grit you get from sleeping rough for months. He wore a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts pulled out of some pile of rags and caked with the kind of grime you get from sleeping rough for months.
That was it. He had nothing else and, on the broiling sidewalks of Chico in August, he had no shoes on his feet. And although I went past him at more than 30, I could see from the wincing that he was feeling every step.
No matter. I shrugged that observation off — don’t we all? — and continued on my way to the Safeway to top up my supplies of fresh fruit and ice cream. In a blink, the man hobbling on the street in bare feet was forgotten — aren’t they always.
Shopping completed I endured the 100+ heat of the parking lot for all of twenty seconds and drove back towards my home in my air-conditioned bubble. Mission accomplished.
Coming up to my street, the lights changed holding me at the intersection. At which time the man in the grimed caked shorts and bare feet crossed in front of me. On the sun-softened black asphalt. Moving in such a way that you could see the burn go from the asphalt, through his feet, to his brain with every step.
A moment’s regret and then my unworthy thought, “Well, that’s HIS problem.” He got across and continued away from me down the sidewalk next to the large Prompt Care parking lot. I turned the corner to drive home.
That’s when I stopped being the person who was driving my car.
I’d gotten about fifty yards down the street when my car began to steer left into the Prompt Care parking lot. I didn’t do it but I couldn’t cancel it. The car swerved into the parking lot and then drove back to the edge of the lot across a long strip of asphalt and a short patch of grass next to the sidewalk where the grime-spattered man hobbled.
The car stopped and I then had to — had to — get out of the car and walk across the asphalt and green to where the man was.
“Hey man, what size shoes do you wear?”
“Your feet. What size shoes?”
“These are twelve. They’ll work.”
“Take these.” (Removing them from my feet) “They’re new. Worn them less than an hour.”
I held them out and he took them and put them on. “Thanks, man. Thanks a lot. Really.”
And he stepped away with his feet shod. I turned to go back to my car which is when I discovered I had to walk across at least ten yards of sidewalk and sun-softened asphalt in my bare feet which were, I recalled, in a constant state of hotfoot no matter where I was. I hot-footed it back to the car and got in waving at the man who was now making his way down the sidewalk without wincing.
Just then he called to me, “Hey, you got any water?”
“No,” I said and put the car in reverse.
Which is when the car stopped again.
Because I did have water in my almost brand new “Kleen Kanteen” aluminum water bottle. It was a gift and sort of expensive, but it had water. I honked the horn and waved for him to come over. He did and I handed the Kleen Kanteen to him. He took a long drink and went to hand it back.
“Keep it.” And with that, I was free to drive my car again. Back to my apartment. Back to, I forgot, a long walk from my parking space across a very hot stretch of summer asphalt. It hurt but not for long. Then I was in my apartment and standing in about three inches of cold water in the tub. My feet cooled and my vainglory warmed up.
Yes, there’s nothing like a good deed to give a man an enhanced estimate of himself. Which is not the point of the good deed but is, often, the reward we give ourselves for sacrifice. It’s that cheap feeling of
“He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said ‘What a good boy am I!’ ”
It took me a bit to realize that it wasn’t “Me” that was doing the deed. Just as it wasn’t “Me” that was driving the car. And when I did I realized the vainglory of my feeling and I was determined not to tell this tale.
After all, there was no “real” sacrifice. I gave my shoes away because I knew I had more, less new but still serviceable, sandals at home. In fact, I had three pairs. So any “gift” I made cost me only some moments of transient pain in a couple of parking lots. The pride and self-puffery I got out of the gesture more than compensated for the shoes. But then realizing that made me ashamed of myself and I tried not to tell the story. But I did because, well, it was my story to tell. But I didn’t write it out because it seemed to lack an ending. It was just an incident and not one I remained proud of but only disappointed in.
Then a month and a half went by and I saw the sandal man again. Same street, same time of day, but cooler now as we edged off into autumn through Halloween.
I stopped at a light next to the drive-through espresso stand on Mangrove. He was standing there on the other side waiting for the light. We were held there for about 30 seconds. And I noticed he had changed.
He was dressed, cap a pié, hat to sandals. But he was dressed in the full motley costume of a medieval fool. It was a complete look without a trace of grime. The strange fool’s cap in stuffed tendrils bobbing about on his head. Underneath that his white beard was cleaned of stains as was his clothing. He had a top doublet and clean pale shorts. Above his beard, he had some coke-bottle lens glasses with lime green Elton John frames. He was pushing a small shopping cart with a couple of Safeway grocery bags in it. And he was still wearing the sandals.
It was a strange 30 seconds at that stop light and he did not notice me at all. Or if he did he made no sign. He looked for all the world as if he had come upon changed circumstances and better days. But it was running up to Halloween so maybe he was just off to some haunting homeless party. I’d never know.
Then the light changed and we both went on our separate ways. Just two of God’s fools trying to find their way through a broken world.
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Ah, geez, Gerard…..you’ve done it again. You’ve brought a tear to my eye.
One of the events in my life that I most regret occurred 34 years ago. I was a new-hire airline pilot, which perhaps contrary to popular belief, meant that I was pretty much broke. I was in my early 30’s, freshly out of the Air Force, with a wife, two kids, and another on the way, and I was not financially making it.
And I found myself in San Diego one night in January, out looking for a meal. And it was cold….really cold….maybe in the mid-30’s. [Forgive me. I live in Arizona and San Diegans live in San Diego, and for us the mid-30’s is way past cold.] Given that we were staying in a downtown hotel, there were these homeless people all over the place, and most of them wanted a handout of some kind.
But I believed that the homeless are best helped by having them help themselves. I’m OK with charity, but I kinda need to see some effort on their part. Get off the drugs. Clean yourself up. Get a job. Giving them handouts just allows them to not fix their fundamental problems.
Then I walked past this guy who to this day I can see plain as day in my mind. He was about 6’2″, rail-thin skinny, dirty, and with about a weeks worth of unshaven beard. He had clearly been “sleeping rough” for some time.
But it wasn’t just him. He had this little girl with him….somewhere around 5 years old. Just like my daughter at home. She was dressed in this little thin jumper thing and had these plastic shoes which I think were called Jellys. Just like my daughter at home. He wanted some cash so they could get a meal.
Back then I was broke. Cash-flow negative. The roof over my family’s head came to us through my mother-in-law. I knew that my financial condition was going to improve in the then- very-near future, but at the moment, every dollar in my pocket meant something. And so when he asked for that handout, I just shook my head and said “No”.
Like every other person of any means were doing that night, I stiff-armed the guy. And I regret that to this day. I should have done the Christian thing and bought the two of them a hot meal. I’m better about this now….I do sometimes throw a dollar or two at someone who appears to need it…but I also could do better (like all of us, I still retain my faults).
We all have faults and regrets. Easier to fix someone else’s problems than my own. That is the way it is.
I am not that nice to the average bum begging money on the highway exist stoplight. I have more than once, even recently, told them to get a job. I never give out money as it simply gets spent at the local liquor store or drug dealer. There is food and shelter available to all homeless in Wichita, henceforth, fuck you, get a job.
In my younger days when I did not have two nickels to rub together and I was working a full time job plus a second job, third shift, three nights a week. 64 hours/week for months, plus any OT I could get. Grind man as that is how one develops character. On the way to my second job one night, I ran across this guy at the street corner stoplight who said he was hungry. Something hit me and I felt compelled to give him my brown paper sack lunch. Why? I don’t know because I am no saint. It was no five star meal either, but bologna and American cheese slapped on the cheapest store brand bread you could get. The poor guy tore into the sandwich wax paper and all. He was in dire straits. There were not the resources available to the desperate back then. Probably around 1990.
I have since helped a number of people at work with a basic budget. Understand money coming in and going out. Do not EVER eat out. Rice and beans. Get a second job. Pay off and cut up the credit cards. GRIND. Most listen then go back to bad habits. A few pull themselves up.
It is not always simple to know the right thing to do with those begging or visibly in need. Jesus isn’t going to buy a pint of gin for a drunk. I believe there needs to be a hard catalyst to make someone do the right thing. Why quit bumming money for booze and drugs when food and shelter is free?
At my lowest point ever, summer 1981, I could not find a job to save my ass. The city had a day-labor place downtown where 100’s of people would mill about in the parking lot after signing in to get the word for any sort of work that needed done. It was a miserable, humiliating position. My name was called and I rode out on a truck to some miserable place and did 8 hours worth of miserable work. For $26 cash. Other doods took their $26 and headed for McDonalds, then to the likker store. I took my $26, in 1981 dollars, and went to the grocery store, bought a loaf of bread, a package of balonie and another of cheese, and a small bottle of mustard, 7 apples, 7 cans of soup, and still had a big chunk of coin left over. I had food for a week. Prior to that day I went 3 weeks without eating anything at all. I learned how to starve and also learned how to avoid it. The next day I was back down at the day labor and I wasn’t starving.
I have been hungry but never without work. Until joining the USAF in 1972 at age 18 the rule in my house was: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Simple. Direct. To the point. And Biblical. I began working at 9 years old and finished working in 2019 at 66 years old. Three of those years I chose not to work and used my paltry savings to wonder the world with backpack and hiking boots. I lived in Peru for a month on oatmeal and bananas.
In the early ’80s I worked three jobs totaling 16 hours a week. There was something I needed—wanted—and extra cash was required. This lasted 6 months, and then I was free. Never again I told myself. And I have never had to work like that again.
One day stands out even now. I walked into the local Albertsons to get some food as I could not possibly go out to eat. There was a sale going on: 10 packs of mac and cheese for $1. I snatched up 10 and was elated that I could eat for a week on $1.
Good times? Nope. Necessary times? Yep. Do it again? Nope. And by the way: I still eat those boxes of mac and cheese when backpacking. When I devour them after hours of trudging through some damn jungle—and all jungles are damned—I think back to that day long ago and far away. I laugh now, but I didn’t laugh then.
Very nice. We’ve all been there and in my case I took strike three right down the middle.
The day after Thanksgiving in 1988-9, downtown Chicago was deserted as evening fell and I headed for the subway to get home when a pleasant and polite mom with two young kids asked if I knew where the nearest soup kitchen was. I didn’t, unfortunately, but like an idiot I just said, “sorry, I don’t” instead of thinking to give her the $5-10 I had in my pocket, especially since I was headed home to wife and infant son in a warm house with Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge.
It was 31 degrees when I got up at 6am.
We got 6″ of snow 2 days ago.
It’s officially winter.
I need to go feed some birds, again.
I was waiting to hear your inner Seattleite say “and inside my sandals I wore woolen socks…”
I know you know he lost your sandals maybe before the end of the day. I know you know, and we all know, that you don’t even care; this is the way it works. There is no time in Grace, as you know.
You were charitable, Gerard. The man needed the shoes and you were in a position to give them.
A gentle reminder: Matthew 6:1-4
““Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ”
I’m still learning about giving. My struggle is in giving more than I think I can. I hold back. Jesus said if you want to be perfect, “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” and your treasure will be in Heaven. But giving is not really giving if, say, you have plenty of something and would not feel the hardship of giving some away. We see cheap charity all the time when people “give” their junky castoffs to charities like Goodwill. They even come out ahead in their charity by avoiding dump fees.
Gerard, Great story. I would like to add the following as a reminder that many times in life we are , for no better word, being tested.
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
– Hebrews 13:2
One small act of Christian charity can set off a long string of positive events that benefit the recipient and the giver. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Good on you Gerard.
Awesome story, good men, do good deeds!
I have bilateral myopathy in my lower legs and feet. I don’t feel much of anything, heat cold, or pain,,,,,,,It’s 12 here in Reno I’m wearing shorts, a carhartt sweatshirt, “ huge difference in thickness quality” and wool lined crocs.
Walked up to the VA hospital and back this morning. Stunning day, chipper but awesome.
Suggest Crocs, most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned.
What can be more valuable then the situation where you figure out that you actually don’t own anything, instead you’re a manager of the many possessions surrounding you? Thoughtful timing is everything.
Imagine when we get to the other side and your life can be played back like a DVR, the many missed similar opportunities. Not so easy to press forward today trying to avoid mistakes.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Since we’re doing this … About 25 years ago I was working for my brother in St. Louis. We were corporate writers, putting out executive speeches, white papers, brochures, video scripts. All things corporate. One day I walked down the street for lunch and was confronted by a tall guy who asked for a meal. He was an Abraham Lincoln kind of man – a little bit ugly, a little bit sad. He sure needed a top hat. “You can eat with me if you want, to know I didn’t spend it on booze,” he said. I looked him hard in the eyes and spat out “No.” Expecting rage, I tensed up and kept staring him down. But he didn’t object. Didn’t say a thing. Just walked on and disappeared. He didn’t approach anyone else.
Not two weeks later, my brother fired me. “There was a time for you to be here, and that time’s up.” I hardly heard him, but was thinking about kicking God in the nuts earlier. The test. You get an “A” or an “F.” It’s a “Pass/Fail” class. No middle range. You can’t hope for a “C” to pass the test.
I’m ok now. Glad to acknowledge the test. “Woke” in the good sense of the word. But it was a test, with repercussions. And it helps me believe in God.
If a man or a woman is bold enough to ask for food/meal, I’m bold enough to buy em a meal.
While I’m successful, life could have not worked out at all, for me in the beginning. The man or woman asking could have been me.
Many years ago I was working and ran into a gent whom had been bitten by a brown recluse, his hand was swollen to twice the size, he would not allow me to take him to the ER, or even call an ambulance.
Fine how do we solve this, partner I can’t leave you in medical distress like this. I’d learned he was a medic in the army many years ago. Ended up driving him to Safeway where I bought him rubbing alcohol, other over the counter meds.
What he really wanted was a syringe, no needle but he needed it to suck the dead and dying crap out of his hand. I knew the Pharmacist on duty and asked her to come talk with this gent. He described how he intended to de bribe? The wound keep it clean and bandaged.
She gave him like five syringes, you can purchase them in Oregon. I paid for the rest of the medical supplies, like thirty dollars. Days later his hand was doing much better.
Some folks are in deed worth taking a chance on. I’ve met some remarkable HOBO’s and street folks in my time.
Also use to hit the national guard up for MRE’s, I’d hand those out to folks needing a break. These folks were always grateful for food.
Yesterday, I stopped at the local Taco Chickie in my town for a quick lunch. Two southern “Canadians”, a mom and her adult daughter were in line arguing in the local lingua about what to order. The daughter acted as translator and after a heated discussion in “Québécois” of over five minutes and many questions of the server, upgraded from the 8-piece to the 12-piece chicken box with all the trimmings. The line behind them grew longer.
They then showed a CHIP card (EBT) and were told that the joint doesn’t accept it. They both looked through empty wallets (no visible cash) and found two credit cards between them, one which was rejected by the card reader and the other that finally worked. That’s when it finally began to register with me that both women had brand-new wallets, expensive leather purses, new shoes, and designer goose-down coats. The mom wore new gold earrings. They were dressed to the nines and trying to use their welfare card to buy fast-food chicken!
When I left, they were pulling away in their brand new Cadillac with Texas plates in my Chicago area hometown, not even road grime or a scratch on the car.
I’ve seen this many times before in my work with developmentally delayed toddlers from poor families who I used to work with in their homes. Tiny government-subsidized apartments, but the family and kids are dressed in designer clothes, each kid has a brand new iPhone, and the largest TV you will ever lay eyes on is crammed along one wall and has every channel known to man, in two languages. The kids have the latest toys. New leather furniture. The baby will be wearing Air Jordan’s and the older kids will have franchised sports jerseys!
The family will always have free healthcare through the state. Sometimes they have a brand new luxury SUV parked outside, a tiny Latin King crown on the dash, all courtesy of us dumb, hard-working taxpayers and the drug trade. I’ve tried not to stare at the gang symbols drawn on the cloth covering their Bose speakers next to their state-of-the-art sound system.
In IL 53% of us workers pay for the 47% who don’t work. We also pay for their free college. I’ve had the families’ older siblings make fun of my old iPhone and brag about how they always have the newest one. As I’ve removed my 10-year-old winter coat, I’ve hung it next to their Canadian Goose down coats, realizing that while my family works hard to save for our kids’ college, pay our bills on time, live frugally, and make do, others are able to live in luxury and not work, thanks to my tax dollars.
Does my family give generously to charities with our time and money to help those truly in need? Yes. But I’ve developed a very skeptical eye toward the “downtrodden”. When we’ve helped out at the annual firefighters’ winter coat drive, needy families come in to pick up brand-new, free winter coats, hats, etc. The firefighters donate money to purchase the coats from a good, quality manufacturer who gives them a major discount to help with the charity. Many of these “needy” adults and their older children actually complain and scowl when they see that these aren’t designer coats. But they grab up the coats, sometimes saying they need extra for other family members who couldn’t my come.
I have visions of these donated coats being sold on eBay. What are they wearing? Brand new designer coats!! I no longer help with that event, because that repeated behavior angered me so much. Some know how to play the system, especially the professional panhandlers in downtown Chicago. I’ve actually seen them get out of their luxury cars, in their costume of grimey clothes, but manicured nails, going from walking upright with a spring in their step to being hunched over and shuffling, cardboard sign in their hand and a plastic bucket to sit on as they get closer to their usual street corner to beg.
Sometimes they’ve forgotten to remove their designer watch! We have an Indian family who regularly has the women hustle for money at local intersections and they are clearly well-dressed, extremely clean, and obviously not missing any meals. Nearby there are numerous signs from businesses desperate for workers where they could immediately start working and get paid weekly, but these supposedly desperate people with their sad stories written on their crumpled cardboard signs are taking in enough money from drivers to make it worth their time to hussle. Call me jaded, but I’ve seen the hustle up close.
Great tales of the urban not-so-poor and the suckers who support them. It’s a crime and needs punishment.