Three days before Christmas, I wearily disembarked from an airplane with my two-year-old asleep on my shoulder and several carry-on bags hanging from my arms. I made my way to a pay phone and called my husband at work to tell him we would be waiting in the luggage area. After fishing a snack out of one of my bags for my son, Sam, I sat down to wait for our suitcases to arrive.
Behind us, two men were leaning against a rack of rental luggage carts. Without actually staring, I soon realized they were homeless. Glancing sideways, I saw that one wore clogs and the other wore dirty tube socks with thongs. Both were unshaven and odorous. I couldn’t help but overhear them discuss their plans for retrieving rented luggage carts from the airport parking lots and collecting the twenty-five-cent deposit for each. The two men weren’t waiting for a handout; they were trying to earn a little cash.
The luggage carousel started to move, and pieces of baggage began to emerge. I watched a woman load her rental cart with bags and pull it toward the exit doors. The man wearing the clogs followed her at a lengthy distance, waiting for an opportunity to retrieve her rental cart. The man in thongs stayed behind.
As I collected my suitcases, I wondered how a person could go from being properly sheltered and fed to living on the streets. How was it that while I was waiting for a loving spouse to come take me to our comfortable home, they were waiting merely for the opportunity to pocket some spare change? This was the first time I had ever seen less fortunate people trying to help themselves. I wondered how they would be spending their Christmas.
My thoughts were interrupted when I noticed an airport employee pushing a stack of rental carts into the area. As he loaded each cart into the rack, I heard a coin drop into the coin return tray. When all the carts were loaded, the worker scooped up the coins and put them in the pocket of his clean, white pants.
I looked at the man in thongs to see what his reaction would be. His face expressed only silent acceptance, as though he had expected this to happen. A part of me suddenly ached for him, and I pulled out my wallet and looked inside.
In my mind I could hear my mother’s voice say, “You don’t have much money to spare,” but still I picked out a bill and stuffed it into my pocket. When I looked up, I saw my husband coming through the doors. He, Sam, and I had a brief but glorious reunion, and then he picked up my bags and carried them to our car at the curb.
After the luggage was stowed and Sam was safely locked into his seat, I told my husband I had to run back inside a moment. When I returned, the man in thongs was still sitting on top of the luggage cart rack. He seemed so alone.
Taking a deep breath and whispering a word of prayer, I reached into my pocket for the bill and approached him.
“Why don’t you take this and get something to eat,” I said, handing him the money.
The man looked up. I expected hostility or sullen indifference, but he met my gaze squarely. With genuine gratitude and utter clarity, he said, “Why thank you, thank you so much!”
I was stunned. The eyes that met mine were clear and vibrant and warm. This unshaven man with dirty tube socks and mismatched clothes had a noble countenance. I felt that I should be thanking him for not feeling rancor at my having more and his having less.
I turned around and headed for the car. Next time, I will not be so hesitant to reach out, I thought, feeling a sudden rush of gratitude for the Lord’s blessings in my life.