Coffee, compassion and a reason to be thankful

There’s a woman who lives next door to the building where I work. She sits outside on the stoop, day and night, no matter the weather, and panhandles without shame. “Spare a dollar for a cup of coffee?” she calls to each and every passerby. I used to be one of them – one of the many who would pass by this woman on my way home from work or on the way to the store or to have a drink with my friends. “No, I’m sorry,” I would say, they say. I hear them say it every day. And yet, she never gives up: “Spare a dollar for a cup of coffee?”

Sometimes, they say nothing at all. They simply keep their heads down and walk on. They pretend they cannot hear her. But in ignoring her, they are doing, saying, so much more. They are saying, “You do not matter. If you did, I would hear you, acknowledge you, and since I cannot, you are not.”

They are saying that they are better than she is because they don’t have to beg for change. They can afford coffee and a smoke just fine, “thank you very much, and no, I don’t have a smile for you, either.”

I pity them all, but I pity my neighbor the least. She has no qualms with the way in which she lives her life. But the others, the ones who ignore her, pretending she is invisible, or dead, how do they look themselves in the eye? Do they live in homes without mirrors?

We can only hope.

Is it the weather that inspires my overwhelming sense of charity? Is it that we are accustomed to giving more during this time of year? I cannot be sure.

All I know is it’s that time of year again, that time when we are focused on family, friends and good will toward others. It’s a good time of year (especially considering our luck with the weather). Each day, as I walk the city streets to school and to work, I am reminded of why I love this season – the sights and smells and oh, those little white lights. But each day, I’m also reminded of how far we still have to come in terms of compassion.

Last year, about this time, a Vanguard reader wrote a letter to the editor, which claimed that students cannot afford to give spare change. We are poor enough, she said. I said then, and I say now, nonsense.

Whether you can afford to spare a dollar or an hour of your time, there are plenty of ways we can engage in the community around us. There are organizations like Wallace Medical Concern, which provides health care to low-income individuals and families (this includes students), and Sisters of the Road Caf퀌�, a different kind of eatery in which patrons pay a dollar or two for a good meal, served with respect.

There’s the new and improved Street Roots, a good read for a good cause, and of course, a bevy of soup kitchens that need volunteers to meet the increasing demand of the holiday season.

There are young students who need help with their homework and older students who need help with their language skills. There are homeless people who sleep on the streets each night without jackets and blankets.

And then there is simply the woman next door, who wants nothing more than a hot cup of coffee, two creams, three sugars. She’ll return a smile if that’s all you have to offer, and she’ll even say, “Have a good night.”

She means it, too.

Those who need compassion give it best.