My mother used to have a sign quite similar to the one in the picture. People often spoke of the embarrassment they felt when they saw her standing out on the intersection of Snelling Avenue and I-94 in St. Paul. Instead of considering the impact that such humility would have on my mother’s well-being and asking what would drive my mother to such a predicament in life, people often spoke of her ‘signing’ with disgust and rarely considered the needs that brought a 40-something mother of 3 to that particular intersection with her particular sign. Chronic personal battles, physical injuries, a criminal history, and mental illness made it impossible for my mother to work; and despite many appeals, she was not eligible to receive disability benefits to offset personal living expenses.
So what does one do in those circumstances? Many had pity. And some dismissed her plight as the result of personal choice or laziness. When pushed to the limits believing there is no other option, we may all surprise ourselves at what we’d do to survive.
My mother lived in survival mode. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, my mother’s perspective didn’t extend beyond the physiological aspects of her life because those very basic needs were not being met in her life. Her days were spent getting bus tokens, going to appointments, meeting with legal aid for help filling out paperwork, finding people to send emails and faxes for her, and using the money she got from the street to get things for the family and money orders for bills. Nights were spent bargaining, making concessions, and trying to stay alive. Her panhandling wasn’t because she was lazy or using the money for drugs or incapable of applying herself elsewhere. If there were other options for living, she had either tried them already and exhausted them, or wasn’t aware of them altogether. When psychosocial barriers are removed, and if personal health issues are of no concern, things like creativity, inspiration, gainful employment, and self-actualization might have been possibilities for her had she lived. In an ideal world, survival isn’t the only goal, and thriving may be more than a possibility for someone marginalized by life.
I will never completely know or understand everything regarding my mother; and inspite of a very painful past, I know she loved us and did the best for us with what she had. She helped me with my homework at times. She taught us safety tips for sleeping in cars. She always managed to get several frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving and gave them away to people in the community. She liked perfume. Her favorite color was red. She’d give you the clothes off her back if she could. She had a beautiful smile. She was one of the most resourceful people I’ve ever known. If the circumstances were different, and had she lived to realize her fullest potential, I’m quite certain that a fruitful, abundant, secure, and joyous life could have been possible for her, too. I am quite certain of it because I believe that under the right circumstances, that this kind of life is possible for us all.
It’s easy to speed by an intersection where panhandlers gather…hoping to go unnoticed. It’s easy to determine that everyone stationed along the edges of society must have and know other options. It’s easy to forget that those faithful few, with their dishevelled hair and dingy clothes, are parents, siblings, and children. The next time you slip a dollar through the windshield, or drop change in a bucket, make eye contact with the person you are blessing and remember that they are people too.