By Joy A. Vagefi
It was the first, big snowfall of the season in
I heard him before I ever saw him. The sound of metal scraping across my neighbor's driveway echoed outside my living room window. Curious, I watched a man I did not recognize from the neighborhood swiftly push small piles of snow into the street.
Even from my second floor window, I could see that his coat was tattered and stained; his leather boots well worn. Less than five minutes later, my neighbor's tiny, urban lot was cleared of snow and the man was handed an indeterminate amount of money.
Although I had planned on clearing my own driveway, my heart went out to this shoveler. Thought his appearance could have placed him on a street corner begging for change, I thought it admirable that he was working for his handout. As I waited for my turn to act charitably, I indulged myself in imagining what hardships plagued this man's life - Homelessness? Lack of education? Drug abuse?
I'll call the man Lester. He had a round, pleasant face with a wide, gap-tooth smile. A fermented scent wafted from his soiled clothes. A rusted shovel rested at his side. Lester Tsked at the snow covering my driveway; he said he could take care of it -- for a fee, of course.
In my ideal world, a world without social consequences, I would have chosen to pay Lester in much needed hugs. But this was the real world, and my goodwill would have to manifest itself in another way. I asked him his going rate. He replied, "Pay what you can afford."
I raced up the two flights of stairs in my house to grab my wallet. En route, I started thinking that in some small way, I was about to participate in helping Lester step back into society. My do-gooder heart swelled to the point of almost bursting. When I returned, Lester was already finished and waiting with his shovel. Opening my wallet, I was pleased to find a lone $10 bill.
My outstretched hand held my payment, my face an appreciative smile. Instead of the gracious "thank-you" I was expecting, Lester's eyes flashed disappointment, bordering on insult.
An awkward moment passed between us. Suddenly, the Lester I had come to admire in my head -- the man who was kicking his drug habit, or shoveling snow to keep current on his child support -- was now being erased by the rudeness of the real Lester standing before me. For all I knew, this Lester was on parole for whacking naïve women who didn't pay up for shovel services rendered.
What about pay what you can afford? I reminded him. Technically, I could afford more but $10 seemed fair for a few minutes of shoveling. Plus, it was the only cash I had in my wallet. He told me his services were worth more than my offer. He said he was a businessman, with a bank account. He recommended I write him a check.
With my inflated sense of benevolence now punctured, I landed squarely back on planet earth. Lester never asked for my pity or my assumptions; he asked for my money. Sure, he smelled vaguely like urine and had holes in his clothes but that didn't necessarily mean he wasn't educated -- a businessman; a taxpayer. Then, as if sensing my internal strife, Lester snatched the money from my hand before I had a chance to say or do anything else and moved on to his next customer.
A few days later
Yes, it took a few extra minutes but considering my options, it was worth it.
Joy Vagefi shovels her own walk in front of her house in Fairmount.