Donald Trump has nothin’ on my young son Nick. He’s a highly focused and relentless negotiator who won’t quit till he closes the deal and gets what he wants. He won’t hesitate to utilize every weapon, including noise, tears and guilt. That was certainly the case on a recent trek to town.
We were headed for Wal Mart to buy cut rate Goldfish Crackers and a few basic items for the house and then we planned to hit a matinee before dinner. All good, right?
Well, seems Nick had a different strategy for the trip. There was $25 in leftover birthday money packed in his blue and red Spiderman wallet. Lots of dough for a little guy, but apparently five bucks short of his desired treasure—Playstation’s new video game, “Bolt.”
“Dad, I need five more dollars to buy Bolt,” he said.
“Keep up your chores, save your money and you might have enough soon.”
“Can I give you my allowance next week?”
I smiled at Nick’s savvy attempt to leverage my money to help purchase his investment. “Sorry Bud,” I replied. You need to have all the dough first. Save up for a few weeks.”
“Come on Dad, it’s only five bucks. I promise to pay it back.”
Okay, I was about to spend money on crackers shaped like cartoon fish and five dollars is not so much in this day and age, but here was a chance to teach my son a lesson on money management.
“Sorry Nick, no.”
“That’s not fair! You always give Sis what she wants.”
“No I don’t and the answer is still no. You’ll have to save up, or you can buy something different.”
“I don’t really want to see a movie. Can we use that money?”
“No we cannot. Stop bugging me about it, okay?”
Nick entered that 11-year-old world of self pity and eagle-eye stares toward his ever so cruel father. The hum of the engine was quickly overwhelmed by the growing silence of my wronged boy. On I drove.
Soon we reached the intersection which led to the snarled entryway of Wal Mart. I love that, no matter who you are—once inside, all class distinction evaporates. Whether you come from a castle on the hill, home in the ‘Burbs or under the bridge, you have reached a level field. We all push through the same narrow aisles with dueling carts and then have to wait in line with everyone else. No one is spared the pain.
I navigated the right turn and began the slow troll to parking hell. As often is the case, there was a destitute man standing at the corner, holding a sign, which read, “PLEASE HELP. NEED FOOD.”
I’ve become fairly accustomed to that scene and usually avoid eye contact. You never know if they are really hungry or just looking for easy money. Right?
This time was different.
Here was a man in his early 20s with the saddest and hungriest look I’d ever seen. His brown eyes were swollen, as if he’d been crying, yet through that lonely and sallow face, he emitted a far away smile–as if to suggest a pride of sorts. He wore dirty jeans, blue canvas boat shoes and a designer dress shirt that had seen better days. His blonde hair was fairly short, though unkempt and he sported a shell necklace around a spindly neck. Nothing extraordinary, typical street corner homeless guy.
Except for a few things.
He would not look up. This young man was clearly uncomfortable asking for money. He simply held up the sign and kept his head down, as car after car passed by. He made it easy for them–no eye contact–no obligation. He was also on the wrong side of the road, which would require a driver to stop and then lean over and out the passenger window to give him money. This was not your seasoned down and outer.
As I braked to a stop, I thought of my oldest son Eric, who is 22. He and I also spent a store trip or two debating whether he could buy the newest toy with money he did not have. In fact, he would often use his brother Jeff, who was three years younger, to be his wing man.
Ultimately though, Eric drifted away. He was a rebellious sort who tended to drift towards the wrong friends. He split his time between two homes and it was easy to ignore the calls for help.
A few years ago, he started to get in trouble with the law. He joined a gang and became addicted to street drugs. He only calls when he wants money for more of those drugs. I’ve been counseled to always say no, as it will only enable him to continue the lifestyle. He has since learned to say that he’s hungry, which gets me every time. Often times I let the phone ring–my new learned technique of avoidance, which makes it a little easier. So many nights I’ve tossed and turned at the thought of him going to sleep cold and hungry, though he now has a bed and three squares a day with his current six month jail sentence. My stress now lies on what will occur when he’s released.
“Nick, I want you to hand this guy something,” I said, while I rolled down the window and pulled out my wallet.
Nick straightened up and looked out nervously. “Uh, okay Dad.”
I passed him five one dollar bills. Nick and I made eye contact and then I motioned my head towards the slowly approaching fellow. Nick looked over at him and then again at me. My wink signaled it was okay to hand the money over. He tentatively put his hand through the open window, as if feeding a wild tiger.
“Thank you,” said the young man rather awkwardly, as he grabbed the bills. I waved and then started to pull forward, when he put his hands up, still clutching the flapping money. The impatient drivers behind me scowled, but I stopped anyway. He moved in closer to the car until his chin touched the partly rolled up window, forming a dramatic frame that again exposed a lost and scared man-child. He stared in to Nick’s eyes and my son was transfixed. He extended his right hand to Nick, who looked over to me for approval. I nodded and he turned back, put his own hand out and exchanged one of those nouveau-sic handshake/fist bumps that I can never figure out.
“I’m Phil,” said the man, as he awkwardly grabbed the bills. He then pursed his lips until a boyish grin took over. “My kid can eat tonight. Thanks Bud.”
Nick was wide-eyed as Phil turned to walk back to his spot on the sidewalk. To the relief of the line of cars now behind us, we drove forward. I yelled out, “Maybe you should go to the other side of the road. More people would stop!”
I don’t know if he heard, but I suspect this would not be his primary means to make a living in the future. A glance in the rear view mirror showed a young woman, bundled in a raggedy serape, walking towards him. She was holding a small child, who seemed to be asleep.
We drove on.
I found a parking space fairly close to the entry and pulled in. For a moment we sat in silence.
“What did you think about that Nick?”
“Good. He was hungry.”
“What do you think of me giving him the five dollars that would help you buy Bolt?”
“Oh yeah. Um…well he needed it worse. I think it’s good.”
We climbed out of the car and walked toward the store.
“Are you sure I can’t buy Bolt today?”
“Yes Nick, I’m sure.”
I waited for the expected, “But Dad, you gave money to that guy. Why can’t I have some?”
It never happened. Instead we finished shopping, watched our movie and had a great evening. Nick decided to save his money for another day.
That was three weeks ago. Since then, Nick is back to inventing new ways to separate me from my cash. Yesterday though, I overheard him brag to his sister, “We gave a man some money and he fed his baby with it.
“That’s cool,” replied 12-year-old Mikala, while she continued to read her e-mail.
I gazed at my two youngest for a moment and smiled. I felt so lucky to have these next years to teach, protect and fight for them. I became lost in the moment, until the ring of the phone jarred me out of it.
“You have a collect call from an inmate at West County Detention Center.”
“Eric,” spoke my boy, as he followed the operator’s instructions to say his name.
“If you wish to accept, dial one.”
“Hello son, how are you,” I said quietly. “I miss you so much.”
I wiped my eyes and waited to hear the sounds of a young boy asking for a few bucks to buy a Nintendo-64 game. Instead, amidst the roaring background of fellow inmates and loud TV noise, my son simply said, “I miss you too Dad. Wish we were together right now.”
I wiped my eyes again and sniffled. “I’ve never left you Eric.”
To myself, I thought that he has never really left me either.
“Dad?” he asked in a familiar tone.
“Do you think you could put a few bucks in my account. I need shoes and they never give me enough to eat.”
“I’ll put it in tonight. You sleep good now. I love you.”
“Love you too Dad. Goodnight.”
And so the lessons go.