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I swear, it was the penguins.

He stood in the brown wedge of grass off the freeway exit. A cheesy salt-and-pepper mustache dominated his lined face, and though worn, his clothes were fairly neat and tidy. He held a cardboard sign:

DOWN ON LUCK
NEED A JOB
ANYTHING HELPS
GOD BLESS

I waited at the light, the man not ten feet from my window. I felt his eyes on me. My gaze flicked away from him, to the radio, to the clock, to the stoplight.

Garrison Keillor had been telling a very, very long joke about penguins, and in the middle of a bit about being on an island outside Antarctica, he said, "And there I was. Alone. I put up my collapsible yurt." I couldn't help myself -- something about a collapsible yurt and the sound effect made me laugh.

And then I panicked. What if the guy with the sign thought I was laughing at him?

I bit my lip. Garrison went on, talking about taking tea and Spam sandwiches with penguins. And it wasn't really funny, but the fact that I was so determined not to laugh made it funny. And then the penguins told a joke.

I burst out laughing.

And again, I was so worried that the guy with the sign thought I was laughing at him. I can't remember the last time I was so happy for a stoplight to change. Clearly the man had more important things to worry about than the girl in the Lancer who was laughing, but I still felt bad. In retrospect if I really felt so bad about it I should have changed the station. But that didn't occur to me in the middle of the penguin hilarity.

I have a tendency to worry like this, that people take my actions in a completely different manner from how they were meant. I know people pay way less attention to me than I think they do, but still, the last thing I want to do is inadvertently offend a stranger.

(It made it worse that just this morning I heard a story on Weekend Edition about a former homeless man who goes around the country trading clean socks for interviews with homeless people, and it reminded me yet again how fragile we all are in our lives. I hope that somewhere this evening the man with the sign found something as funny as I found the penguins. I hope it was good news.)

Comments

( 1 melody — strike a chord )
mareserinitatis
Mar. 7th, 2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
I hate being in that situation. However, in So. Cal., I was almost always in that situation.

But I won't give money to those people. Enough bad experiences as well as the fact that most of them will use the money on alcohol rather than food makes me very leery. I do, however, reguarly donate to homeless shelters and things like that. If asked, I will refer them to the local shelter, which usually does nothing.

Last year, during the flood, some guys found someone holding a sign and said they'd give him a ride down to the sandbagging where the red cross was serving hot meals. The person refused to go.
( 1 melody — strike a chord )

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