A Sign of the Times
First Place Winner of the Erma Bombeck Global Human Interest Essay Contest
Just beyond the bridge, there’s a man in the middle of the roadway. He’s standing there on the thin divide between coming and going, speeding up to make the light and slowing down when it turns red, entering the city and getting out of town.
Happily, my daughter and I are leaving. The sun is sinking on another long day of work and school. If only my car could fly like the Jetsons’, we’d be home instead of inching along in this clogged line where the drivers’ aggravations rise like exhaust fumes into the twilight.
As we edge closer to him, it’s the sign that grabs my attention. Simple. Clever. To the point.
NOT HIGH. NOT DRUNK. JUST HUNGRY.
That’s what it says as he waits, message in one hand, a Whole Foods shopping bag in the other. Standing there on the thin divide between a warm car and a cold street, a full tank and an empty stomach, a way out and no way out.
If traffic were moving, I could just drive by. I wouldn’t have to look. I wouldn’t have to think. Stuck here in this jam, it’s not that easy.
He knows this. He’s smart. His little roadside marketing campaign has all the right elements. Know your audience. Address their concerns. Eliminate their objections. Appeal to their needs. Basic human needs. Food, water, that sort of thing.
The Whole Foods bag is a nice touch. Without a word, he’s telling us his intentions are good. Organic, pure and wholesome. And to think we might have suspected otherwise.
Motor running. Car stalled. Mind racing. Time suspended. I reach for my purse.
“Mom, you’re not going to give him money?”
My daughter’s words, yes. But they come from me, from what I’ve taught her over the years. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t stop. Don’t get involved. You never really know who they are. You never really know where they come from. You never really know what they’re doing there in the middle of the roadway.
You never really know.
Especially now. In these hard times when the rules have all changed.
I roll down my window. The wind whips against my face as I hand the man a few crumpled bills I might have used for a cappuccino. He smiles. I search his eyes for something. Reassurance? About him? About me? The light turns green. We drive away.
But in my rearview mirror, I catch a glimpse of him alongside another car, another rolled-down window, another arm extended into the night.
As he waits.
Standing there on the thin divide between doubt and faith, cynicism and optimism, despair and hope.
Even if it is just one small ray.
Photo by Steve Knutson