Because I work downtown, I pass panhandlers every day. The cast of characters pretty much remains the same. There’s Vivian, a bright-faced, cheerful woman, who always calls me “Gorgeous” and asks for spare change. There’s the young man in a dirty coat who draws amazingly detailed sketches of the buildings and people all around him. He’s scrawled on a bit of cardboard a humble request for specifically two dollars. There’s the emaciated woman who sits on the courthouse steps, rocking back and forth, mumbling softly for money from passersby. She has no hair and is drunk most of the time.
I don’t give these people money because I don’t believe it will help them. In fact, I’m fairly certain giving them money will only contribute to the situation they’re in. I do wish they were able to get the help they need, though. On bitterly cold nights, when I walk from my parked car to my front door, I always think about where they might be that night. I wonder if they found someplace warm to go.
Yesterday I was stopped by a man dressed in a nice shirt, tie and baseball cap. He was carrying a sheaf of papers clipped together that looked to be scribbled all over. He introduced himself as Gary Cooper and asked if he could have 30 seconds of my time. Something about him made me stop and listen. Maybe it was his big smile or the fact that he didn’t smell bad. Maybe it was because his namesake played Marshal Kane.
Gary began to talk and leaf through the sheaf of papers, and I saw that the scribbles were the signatures of hundreds of people he had stopped on the street, just like me. He even showed me the signature of the mayor of Raleigh, which is a big deal, and the signature of the mayor of Clayton, which is a lesser deal.
Gary’s story was pretty straightforward. He was from Orlando, Florida. Three years ago, he got clean and hasn’t taken drugs since. A judge in Florida told him that if he could stay clean for one more year and somehow prove he was a responsible citizen, he could have his daughter back. His daughter’s name is Kia, and she is 8 years old. Apparently, he’s working for a magazine company and for each signature he gets, the company will give a Nickelodeon or Sesame Street magazine subscription to a child in a shelter. The signor also had to donate $12. The company would then match up the number of signatures Gary got with the amount of money he collected. He told me he got to keep a percentage of that money. Then he showed me his permit from the City of Raleigh that allowed him to patrol the downtown streets and ask people for donations.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s a scam, right? Well, I gave him $12, and I’ll tell you why.
There’s a saying that’s always stuck with me. You see it on plaques, refrigerator magnets and bumper stickers all the time: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” To me, it doesn’t matter if Gary’s story is true. What matters is that I want to believe it’s true. I want to believe that someone can realize that their life really does matter and that they need to get clean. I want to believe that someone could love their child so much that they would walk around outside in all kinds of weather and depend on the willingness of complete strangers to listen for 30 seconds, just for the chance to hold and kiss that child again. I want to believe it, and I do believe it. Because that’s the kind of world I want to live in.
I hope Vivian and the $2 artist and the rocking drunk woman see Gary Cooper walking around downtown. I wish that they would listen to his story, too.
I wish there were more Gary Coopers.