His words came out strung together like they were separated by dashes instead of spaces. Spare-any-change-thank-you. Spare-any-change-thank-you. Spare-any-change-thank-you.
It took me a block’s walk to decipher what he was saying. The hurried rhythm of his chant tap-danced in my ears as I turned the corner toward Pioneer Square in downtown Portland.
A young man in a tan leather jacket leaned against the black iron gate of the Pioneer Courthouse and casually thumbed through his phone. A few feet away, a woman wearing an oversized pink sweatshirt rummaged through a shiny, silver garbage can.
Was it the moodiness of a gray, winter day luring me to further analyze, or were the man’s words about more than just pocket money? Instead of asking for coins, what if he were asking for real change? As in: Can you spare to make a change? Thank you.
Three blocks later, while waiting for the crosswalk to turn, a man sitting in a wheelchair suddenly burst into song.
“I’m so tired of this world, I feel like I could bust!” he crooned to a surprisingly cheerful melody. His weathered, tan skin stood out beneath a white baseball cap.
We made eye contact and his lips parted into a sheepish smile; a beige, unlit cigarette hung from his bottom lip. It was like a confession, and I was his witness. I returned his smile, and then crossed the street, feeling both humbled by this tiny moment of connection and weighed down by my own sadness about the way things are.
And so on my bus ride home, I wondered what it would take to shift our culture of individualism to one that truly cared about the well-being of the collective. As long as we keep failing to recognize how simply another’s position could have been ours, we deny our shared vulnerability in an uncertain world. (A flurry of bad luck and our lot could be quite different.)
Maybe things will change in 2019, maybe they won’t; but today I was reminded how a simple walk through the city can prompt us to consider whether or not we can, collectively, spare any change.