Got Work?

The doorbell would ring. It was usually early evening. I would curse. Someone at the door at the hour invariably meant one thing: Someone was going to ask me for money.

We did not have the luxury of a filter between us and the street in our row house—no doorman, no buzzer system. Anyone could walk the few feet from the sidewalk and push our bell. We either had to ignore it or deal with whoever was there. And, for quite a stretch in our neighborhood, it was people asking for money.

We don’t know if we were targeted or if our neighbors had the same thing happen to them. We never talked about it with them because there seemed to be no way to stop what always seemed like an intrusion.

Usually it was a man in his twenties or thirties. Most often the person simply said, “I don’t have any money. I am hungry. Could you help me?” On one occasion a man was standing there with what I assumed was his son. He asked if we had cans of food that we could give him. The spouse hearing that got something out of the kitchen cabinet. When giving this to the man, she told him to come back in a week. She spent hours finding a food pantry that would help the father and son. The two did come back, and the spouse told them about the fruits of her labor. That food pantry said they never went.

A few tried even more of a con. The pitch was along these lines: “I am in a big jam. My mother was just taken to the hospital, (or some variation of an emergency). I was going to drive there, but my car would not start (or some variation of car trouble.) I don’t have any cash, and I have to pay for a jump (or a car service). Could you help me?”

If you have sometimes found being approached by a panhandler unpleasant or perhaps even vaguely threatening, answering that evening doorbell was more so. The home should be a place of respite, and this made it feel not entirely secure. Nothing bad ever happened. No one threatened, but answering the face-to-face request for money was never easy. Mostly we said no because we quickly found that giving something on the doorstep meant an increasing number of intrusions since invariably the money-seeker would soon be back.

Marvin, however, broke the pattern. He, too, rang the doorbell and said that he needed money, but instead of asking for it, he asked if there was any work he could do for us.  Of the myriad people who’d come to the door, he was the first, and only one, that asked for work. By then I seldom if ever gave money to the others at the door, but I found myself wanting to help Marvin.  All I could think of that moment was to ask him to sweep the sidewalk. He did, and I paid him, and a long relationship began.

There have been many ups and downs.  At the beginning, Marvin would come too often. I had to tell him time and again not to come more than once a week and would send him away when only a few days had elapsed since his last sweeping.  Sometimes he rang the bell too late at night, after the daughter was asleep, and I would get angry with him.  There was a stretch when he had been drinking and difficult to deal with. He would disappear for stretches, and when we thought he was permanently gone from our lives, he would reappear. The wife once invited him in to ask about his life history. Mostly it was boring and repetitive as he cataloged rehab attempts and incarcerations, but the pattern changed when one judge released him from jail early. He is still grateful to that judge, and that incident appears to be the one that started the change in his life. He was given and found a church that has given him activities, contentment, and fellowship.

Our relationship began more than thirty years ago. He still sweeps for us and has done other custodial tasks. But it has gone beyond that. On winter nights, when ice and snow were piled at the curb and on the sidewalks, he would wait for the wife to come to make sure that she safely made it into the house. She went to the hospital with him when something was wrong with his eyes, and he was clearly frightened about his condition. We have tried to help him in other ways, including having a fund for him dispensed by his church. And it all started when he didn’t just ask for money but asked if I had any work for him.

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