I agree with Mr. Steinbeck on this one. When I was on the road with nothing–no food, no money, no gas–it was often the people who seemed poor who helped me. I was always touched when people who seemed to have very little shared what they did have with me.
One day I got an object lesson in the generosity of the poor and the stinginess of the rich.
I was in Bakersfield, California (population approximately 350,000) with Mr. Carolina, Lil C, and the Okie. I was flying a sign that read “Traveling, Broke & Hungry” at the main Wal-Mart exit. We were trying to get money for some dinner and enough gas to at least get out of town.
I’d been standing there with my sign for a while when I saw a Hummer approaching the exit. No one in a Hummer had ever given me so much as a dime before, so I resigned myself to getting nothing from this driver. But a miracle happened! The Hummer stopped next to me, and the passenger side window slid down. I could see the woman in the driver’s seat rummaging in her purse. She pulled out a bill and leaned across the seat to hand it to me out of the passenger window. I reached for the bill, and there was a moment when both my benefactor and I had our hands on it.
We realized at the same moment that the bill was a twenty. I let out a little noise of joy, and the woman let out a little noise of consternation. Just as I was saying, Oh! Thank you!, the woman pulled the bill out of my hand. Apparently the woman driving the vehicle that cost at least $30,000 new could not afford to give away $20. She ended up giving me $5, and I was grateful for it, although not as grateful as I would have been for that $20 bill I’d briefly had my fingers on.
Some time later, a young guy road up behind me on a bicycle. He asked me about my sign. I told him my friends and I were trying to get out of Bakersfield, trying to get out of California, heading to Oklahoma so one the the friends could get home in time for his mother’s birthday, all of which was true. I told him the four of us were hoping to get some money to buy some dinner and gasoline.
The young man reached into his pocket and pulled out two or three crumpled $1 bills and handed them to me. I thanked him, knowing this was probably quite a generous contribution from someone getting around on a bicycle. I watched him ride off, then turn the bike around and ride back to me.
You know what, he said, you should just take all the money I have in my pockets.
He pulled out a few more crumpled $1 bills. In all, I think he gave me $7.
After I thanked him again, he told me he was giving me the money in Jesus’ name. He told me he felt very fortunate to have a job and his bicycle, things he’d gotten through Jesus, and he felt like Jesus would want him to give me all the money in his pockets.
I felt like I had just witnessed a Biblical parable. The rich lady driving the Hummer had a $20 bill, but decided after I had my hand on it that she needed it more than I did. The poor boy riding a bicycle, however, saw my need as greater than his, so he emptied his pockets and gave the contents to me.
I don’t think Mr. Steinbeck would have been surprised.