Brother, can you spare a dime…and a little compassion?

How many times have you done it? Driven out of the parking lot and passed a sign holder. Diverted your eyes as if they weren’t there. Pursed your lips with a silent “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry I don’t have dollar bills. I’m sorry I’m in this warm SUV while you stand dirty and destitute on the sidewalk. I’m sorry I’ve been told not to give money to beggars.

And so, you drive on. And don’t give.

Or, if you’re like two women I saw this week, you offer a breadstick or bag of homemade cornbread and wish the wanters well with kind eyes. That’s more than I usually do. Too often, I just turn up the radio and look at the horizon. Pretend to be busy. Speed up so I don’t have to stop or slow down.

I wondered this week, as I drove past the corner where sign holders always stand, what if the tables were turned? What if the signs weren’t asking but telling. What if their collection cups weren’t begging for pennies but proffering wisdom. What if these men were messengers with something to say? Would I have time then? Would I take time to listen? Would it change the way I was walking about my world? The questions became compelling enough that they wanted answers.

So, I slung my camera over my shoulder and headed into the city. Stopped the car by sign holders, asked if I could buy some of their time, started talking to them. Listened to stories and sadnesses, laughed until I couldn’t breathe. Learned more than a few surprises along the way. And, ended up with five white mugs, written in Sharpie with words we all need. Here’s what the sign holders of Salt Lake City want you to know…

Ben, once the owner of a restaurant in Denver, now sits in the middle of Sugarhouse and carves walking sticks to make his way. “I do not ask for handouts, I won’t give up…” says his sign. He holds a pocketknife in hand and carefully etches designs. “I’m a little shaky today,” he explains, “I had another mini-stroke last night and it was a scary one. Wasn’t sure I’d get my vision back this time.”

I ask him what he’s learned from the highs and lows of life, wondering what he thinks we need more of in this world. His eyes light up, he stops carving. “I own less that I’ve ever owned in my life and on most days I feel happier than ever. Because now I see people. I talk to them. They come and tell me things, and ask for my advice. And you know what I think we all forget sometimes? It’s that none of us is right. We all represent a piece of the world. And as soon as we stop trying to prove our own truth, and just start listening to others, loving them, letting them be appreciated for who they are…as soon as we realize we ourselves of worthy of that love too. Well…then we’ll really start to change things.”

He gets choked up. Sniffs back tears. Apologizes for the emotion. When I tell him, no, please don’t apologize. It’s exactly, exactly what I needed to hear on this particular day, he looks at me and nods.

“See? Talking to people, it’s how we find meaning. It’s how we get answers.”

Clifford said it’s hard to get up somedays, but knowing he’s got grandbabies makes it worth waking up and trying again. “I don’t have much wisdom,” he said, “I feel like I’ve tried a lot of things and they haven’t worked. But, if people could understand…we’re not all scammers, some of us are really trying to get back up from hard times…maybe we could see each other a little better.”

At first, I was frustrated. What sort of life wisdom was that? But then, I watched his hands write the words. Realized it wasn’t a call to simply stop passing judgement on the dudes standing streetside. It was the basic cry of everyone who’s ever lived. Please see me for who I am, please see the best in me. Or, in the words of Dale Carnegie, “Rather than condemn people, it is better to try and understand them, to discover the motive for their actions. This is much nicer and more productive than criticizing, and it makes us more tolerant, understanding, and good.”

David is a Vietnam vet. He was shy and quiet and unsure that he had any sort of wisdom for anyone at all.

“I don’t know much. Life has made me tired. But, I will say, we need to care more for each other. We need to take care of our vets and homeless and make it so we’re not afraid to not have a place to sleep.” Sometimes the simplest advice is the sweetest. Caring a little more about each other. That really would start to change things around this world of ours, wouldn’t it?

Tom has never voted, but was full of quips and opinions about politics. He expounded on the economy, capitalism, the job market, and the homeless lady around the corner who “makes more than him everyday because ‘she can cry better’.”

His fiery, feisty approach to a Thursday afternoon fit perfectly with his proffered wisdom, “You know there are musicians and there are entertainers. And Michael Jackson didn’t just entertain, he said lots of truths. And one of those things, ‘You gotta make this place a better place’ well…that’s just true. We can’t give up.”

We hugged, I turned to leave. He called after me…

“And, if you go right on over there and get that lady to cry, I’ll give you your five bucks back!!”

As I walked away laughing, Tom called after me, “stop by anytime. It’s so nice talking to you!”

It reminded me of that thing Ben had said, “I own less that I’ve ever owned in my life and on most days I feel happier than ever. Because now I see people. I talk to them…”

On the way home, I drove a little slower, smiled at streets full of people, cancelled a few to-do’s from my calendar, and called my sister. “Hey, you wanna come over for coffee? We have so many stories to catch up on…”

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