An essay about poverty, hunger and Oklahoma City's anti-panhandling ordinance
By M. Scott Carter
On the left side of my refrigerator, just above the latest art masterpiece by my eight-year-old daughter and next to the dog-shaped magnet given to me by my son, there’s a small, wrinkled receipt.
The receipt seems out of place – after all, our refrigerator is nothing more than a large bulletin board – and this one takes up valuable real estate. The receipt is yellowed and old and so faded that it’s hard to read.
But of all the things that have found their way to my home, that small piece of paper represents one of the most profound moments of my life and it acts as a capstone for a lesson taught to my by my father and grandmother.
The story goes like this:
That particular July day was hot. Not the warm, balmy type of heat that makes you sleepy and dulls your senses. No, this was more of the Sixth-Level-of-Hell type hot – just a notch or two below inferno.
I had been on assignment that morning and didn’t make it back to the Journal Record’s office until late in the afternoon.
Because of the heat, I dreaded the walk from the parking garage to the building. During July the dumpsters downtown get a pretty good funk going and usually, by the time I got to the office, my shirt was damp with sweat.
On this particular day the dumpsters were rank and the heat rose from the pavement like a vengeful spirit.
I didn’t see him until I started to cross the street.
He was elderly. Rail thin. His gray hair was short. His clothes were shaggy and threadbare. He had bright gray eyes, a full beard and the scarred, rough hands of someone who had seen a difficult life.
He was bent over, halfway inside one of large dumpsters between Corporate Tower and the Robinson Renaissance Building. As I crossed the street I watched him take a broken Styrofoam clamshell out of the dumpster and place it on the ground, next to his feet.
Inside the clamshell were a few leaves of rotten lettuce, a smear of ketchup, and a half-eaten piece of meat.
The image shocked me.
Here in the shadow of the Devon Tower, in a state known for the Oklahoma Standard, an old man was foraging in a dumpster, trying to find food.
I approach him cautiously and spoke: “That doesn’t look very clean. Can I get you something better?”
He shook his head. "Well, it’s better than nothing," he said.
"But it came out of a dumpster.” I pointed to the sandwich shop across the street. “Come on. You can have lunch with me. Let's get you a sandwich.”
The old man pulled himself out of the dumpster and after a moment, we crossed Robinson. I held the door of the sandwich shop open for him to enter. He declined.
“I’m not dressed too good,” he said. “I don’t want to embarrass them and it would bother me. I’ll just sit here, outside, at the table outside if that’s okay with you.”
I nodded. “What would you like?” I asked.
The old man cocked his head and thought for a moment. “Well, I haven’t had a good sandwich in a long time.”
I smiled. “Consider it done.”
I walked inside and ordered two sandwiches, Italian and tuna salad, chips and a large soda. A few moments later I sat them on the table in front of him.
“I got you two. Thought you might need an extra,” I said.
The old man shook his head then, slowly – as if he were struggling for the words – he looked at me. “I ain’t had a good meal in quite a while,” he said.
I slipped the receipt in my pocket and stood quiet, the words failing me. Suddenly, for some reason, I wasn’t hungry. After an awkward moment, I asked him if there was anything else he needed. The old man shook his head and smiled.
“No, sir. You’ve done a whole lot. God bless you.”
I closed my eyes. I was ten years old again.
My grandmother was a small, round woman who married very young, had several babies, and survived the Great Depression through sheer force of will and her incredible baking skills.
Over the years, my grandmother’s hands, rough and calloused by decades of hard work, had become twisted by arthritis. Yet even with the constant pain, she scurried around the kitchen, the oven her domain. Baking was her thing. She once told me the warmth of the dough made her hands feel better.
When I was tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, Grandma Carter schooled me in the fine art of dough kneading. She also shared the secret to great biscuits (it’s all about the butter) and her recipe for banana-nut bread (lots of over-ripe bananas and fresh walnuts).
Each year, during the fall, she would come and stay with us for a week or so. During those trips our house was filled with the scent of a wood fire and the intoxicating aroma of fresh, warm bread.
My grandmother also talked to me about her life and told me the story of how she and my grandfather ‘made do’ when times were tough. On more than one occasion, she shared her spiritual side.
“Always be kind to the poor man,” she said. “Cause you never know if it’s Jesus in disguise.”
I was young and stupid and didn’t really understand.
Grandma restated her philosophy, then she continued: “What if Jesus disguises himself as a poor man who asks you for help and you don’t help? What are you gonna’ say to him when your life ends and you stand there at the gates of Heaven?”
I hadn’t considered this. But on that day, in the mind of a ten-year-old, what she said made sense. It was far easier to help, I decided, than worry about making the Almighty mad and condemning myself to what could be a really miserable afterlife.
My grandmother died in 1994. Even now I remember than conversation.
A few years later, my father taught me the second part of her lesson.
I had just turned 14 and, of course, I knew everything. I was young and smart and tried hard to avoid my parents as much as possible.
One fall evening, during a particularly heavy rainstorm, our dinner was interrupted by a knock at the door. At our house, dinner was regularly held at six. My father worked in the oil field. When he got off work he was tired, smelled of crude oil and was very hungry.
That night was no exception. The regular players – my mom, dad and my little brother – were all at the table. Dinner was ready. Time to eat.
No one else was expected.
Another knock. I went to the door and opened it. I assumed it would be someone who was lost and just seeking directions. Instead, I stood found myself looking into the face of my uncle, my father’s youngest brother, his wife, and several of their children.
They’d fought the storm to drive to Payne County and pay a ‘surprise’ visit to my parents.
My father smiled, rose from his chair and welcomed them. He nodded to my mother and she, without a word, went to the kitchen and returned with several more plates, silverware and glasses.
A few moments later dinner – now with several more people scrunched around our small dining room table – resumed.
But something was different.
I noticed that my parents, especially my father, had taken very small portions of food. And on this night – cold and wet – my mother had served my father’s favorite meal – beans, fried potatoes and homemade cornbread.
Instead of his normal stack of potatoes, my father had only taken a few. There was no small mountain of beans, just one spoonful and a single piece of cornbread.
This all seemed strange since earlier that evening, right after he’d walked through the door, my father had announced just how hungry he was.
My father’s actions didn’t make any sense. He only had tiny portions on his plate – and my father was not known for tiny portions of anything.
Later, after my uncle and his family left, I discovered the reason.
One afternoon I was helping my mother in the kitchen. I mentioned that Dad didn’t seem to like his favorite meal any more.
“Oh?” she said, her face a large question mark.
“Yeah, remember that night that Uncle Bud got here? Dad hardly ate at all.”
Mom smiled. “Oh, you saw that, did you?”
“Yeah. I thought Dad loved beans and cornbread?”
Mom turned toward me and folded her hands in her apron. “You have to understand something about your father,” she said. “He grew up very poor. When he was young, times were tough and there were many nights that all they had for dinner was biscuits and gravy. For him, cornbread and beans was a feast.”
“But what’s that got to do with him not eating?”
Mom ignored my question and kept talking. “Because of that experience, your father has a deep appreciation for hunger. We hadn’t been married very long when he told me that no one would ever leave his house hungry.”
“I still don’t understand,” I said.
“It’s about connection,” my mom said. “Food is a basic necessity, food and companionship. Your father takes both very seriously. That’s why he went without so his guests wouldn’t be hungry.”
It was the second time I heard the voice of my grandmother.
I stood on the sidewalk and talked with the old man for a few more minutes. He ate his first sandwich slowly, savoring each bite.
After a while the conversation ended. He smiled at me, placed the second sandwich in his coat and began to walk down the alley.
“Thank you again,” he said, softly. “That was a treat. God bless you.”
I turned away and walked back to the newsroom, a million thoughts racing through my brain: How would he get by? Where would his next meal come from? What will happen to him?
His meal hadn’t cost me that much, just a few dollars. But the pleasure of watching that hungry man enjoy his sandwich almost overwhelmed me.
Few people that day understood my smile. In fact, at that point I had no intention of sharing the event that took place just a few feet away from the Journal Record.
Time passed. Days. Weeks. Now years.
I never saw the old man again, but the memory of that event has continued to haunt me.
Not long ago, I saw another withered old man standing near a busy intersection in northwest Oklahoma City. He stood there, silently, holding a cardboard sign. A dog, that looked much better fed, stood next to him.
I handed the man a $5 bill, then pulled my car into the convenience station at the corner to get gas. I asked the clerk about the old guy with the dog.
“Oh, he comes in here once in a while,” the clerk said. “He will get some kibbles for his dog and a maybe a sandwich. He doesn’t say much. Just kinda quiet.”
As I drove away, I heard my grandmother again.
For several weeks now, I’ve listened as members of the Oklahoma City Council debated ordinances that would restrict panhandling and criminalize those who live in poverty.
Proponents of these ordinances say they will increase public safety and make sure residents – including the homeless – aren’t struck by a car when they are standing in a median.
We’re told that panhandling and the efforts by those who sell the official publication of the homeless, the Curbside Chronicle, isn’t being restricted.
We’re told the Oklahoma City Council isn’t trying to criminalize poverty.
We’re told the issue is all about public safety.
I don’t believe it.
Personally, I think the true reason behind these ordinances is simple fear. For all our storied history, I believe that many Oklahomans are afraid to look poverty in the face.
I believe many people are afraid of what they’ll see.
I don’t understand how we got to this point. I don’t understand how we, as Oklahomans, could come to a place in our collective consciousness where we would prefer to look the other way than face the image of a man digging through a dumpster for food.
We Oklahomans take great pride in the ability to help our neighbor. Our knowledge of poverty is long and deep. But right now, at this moment, we’re passing an ordinance – under the guise of safety – that criminalizes the simple fact of being poor.
We drive past the destitute and the impoverished, staring ahead, avoiding the scruffy beards, the dirty clothes, and the anguish in another human’s face.
We scent ourselves with the perfume of success and we cloak ourselves in the desire for material things.
We sing in the church choir on Sunday, but on Monday, we turn away from the man with the cardboard sign and the scraggly dog.
Years ago, a friend of mine – a Catholic priest – told me that poverty wasn’t an economic condition but, instead, a state of mind. “People who are truly impoverished are broken,” my friend said. “They need help.”
Since that conversation I’ve encountered many individuals who needed help. I’ve seen them at intersections, in parking lots or walking along the road.
And yes, on many occasions I’ve tried to help. I’ve bought a sandwich. Given away a coat. Handed someone a few dollars.
I’ve never been threatened, nor have I been harassed.
But I felt blessed.
Oh, I have no doubt that there have been times the money I gave was used for drugs or alcohol. And yes, I’m sure there have been a few occasions that the story I was told wasn’t true. But I’ve also watched when people took the money and bought food.
As I listened to the debate over Oklahoma City’s anti-panhandling statutes, I keep telling myself we’re better than this.
I remind myself that we Oklahomans have survived terrorists and tornadoes, the Dust Bowl and the oil bust. I believe each Oklahoman has, now or somewhere in their family’s past, been touched by want.
We know what it’s like to be poor.
We are the Okies who Steinbeck wrote about.
We know the plight of the impoverished.
We’ve seen trouble.
We’ve gone without.
And, yes, we know how to share.
But now, when so many are in need, we’re looking the other way.
Six generations ago, a German-Irish immigrant and his young girlfriend slipped into Oklahoma territory and roped off 168.8 acres of land along the Cimarron River, near what is now, Cleveland, Oklahoma. That immigrant – in the state illegally – didn’t want to wait until the official opening of the Cherokee Strip. He and his unmarried girlfriend staked out their plot the night before.
That immigrant, my great-great-great-great grandfather, was an original by-the-book Sooner. He didn’t hold much to the rules and he wasn’t a real big fan of authority, either.
But like my father, he refused to let anyone go hungry.
Perhaps it’s genetic. Maybe it’s in the blood that flows through my veins. Whatever the reason – the ghosts of my ancestors, the voice of my grandmother or the image of my father sharing his meal – I believe that reaching out to help those who are broken is not wrong and, further, it’s not something that we, as civilized Oklahomans, should ever fear.
It’s time the residents of Oklahoma City acknowledge that fact.
A well-designed public safety system should never make us afraid of those who are homeless. We have no reason to fear those who struggle or those who are in need.
My grandmother's lesson was simple: Jesus admonished his believers that the poor will always be with us. Instead of ignoring them, instead of passing ordinances that criminalize their station in life, our government should make the moral decision to embrace those who struggle and work to help them, even if it’s simply allowing them to stand in a median with a cardboard sign.
It’s time for us to reconnect with our roots.
It’s time for us protect and not penalize those who are impoverished.
And it’s time for each of us to cover our refrigerator doors with dozens of old, faded receipts.