He had no teeth. That was the first thing you noticed. He had no teeth.
But he had a dog.
A big, clumsy labrador mix with white paws and a shiny black coat that was quickly becoming covered with snow as the two of them stood there in the Safeway parking lot next to the wheelchair that the man used instead of a shopping cart to transport all his earthly goods.
“You want a dog, Mister?” he said as I walked past.
The dog looked up at me with big doleful not entirely trusting eyes. She knew something was up.
“She’s a really good dog,” he said. “She don’t cause no trouble.”
Like all of us, I’ve become hardened to the homeless in a way I never would have thought possible. Years ago when I was in Europe I was appalled at the beggars on the streets and how people just stepped over them as they sat wrapped in blankets holding out their hands or shaking cups full of coins. Now I am one of those people. Not all the time, but, sadly, far too often. There is too much need, too much pain, and too much uncertainty about which of these people really are in need and which are merely taking the path of least resistance in a society that has become increasingly cruel and difficult to navigate. A better man than I does not make these distinctions, but I am no longer that man. I see what I want to see when I want to see it and just go on with my life.
But a man giving away his dog. That I can’t ignore. It tears at my heart.
“I can’t take your dog,” I say. “I’m really sorry.”
The dog looks up at me. I reach down and pet her head. She moves instinctively back toward the man, as if she knows what is being proposed.
“She’s a really good dog,” he says again. “She don’t cause no trouble.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, and smile weakly and walk past him into the store.
What are we supposed to do in a world full of such moments of unnoticed sacrifice and pain? A man should not have to give away his dog because he can’t afford to feed her. A man should not have to choose between staying with his dog and having a place to sleep.
I fill my shopping basket with orange juice and grapes and a bag of French roast coffee — treasured pleasures in my life of warmth and comfort and ease.
“She’s a really good dog. She don’t cause no trouble.”
I should leave, but I can’t.
“Where’s the dog food lane?” I ask a clerk. She directs me to the aisle with bags of dogfood ranging in price from $20 to over $100. I grab one on closeout for $15, check out, and head toward the door. I take a $20 bill out of my billfold and tuck it into the top of the dog food bag.
The man is still standing there in the ice and snow next to his wheelchair.
His dog is gone.
“Where’s your dog?” I ask. “I bought her some dog food.”
“Some woman took her,’ he says. He does not look at me.
I hand him the dog food and the $20 bill. “Give it to one of your friends,” I say. He takes the bill and puts the dog food on top of the green garbage bags piled on the wheelchair.
I walk back to my car. In the back seat is a stack of unused sport coats and dress shirts I’ve been trying to donate to a transition center for men attempting to get back on their feet after addiction or incarceration. No one will take them. “The types of jobs our men are trying to get don’t require sport coats and nice shirts” one woman told me.
I place the bag of orange juice and grapes and coffee next to the pile of clothes. The smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the car.
I drive out of the lot toward the street.
The man is still standing on the icy sidewalk next to his wheelchair.
There is no happy ending to this story. There is no ending at all. Just one more in a series of choices that we make or don’t make in a world where children get warm puppies for Christmas and homeless men give away old dogs that they can no longer care for or feed.
I am not sleeping well tonight. I hope that dog found a good home. And the snow is still coming down outside.