The early afternoon sun pushed the temperature above 100 degrees, but it seemed hotter as we sat baking in the El Pollo Loco drive-thru.
That’s when he approached the Subaru. With a roll of paper towels in one hand and a Windex bottle in the other, he asked, “May I clean your windows? I’ll work for whatever you want to pay. A tip, anything.”
Sweat streamed from his face, fogging his eye glasses. He could have been 25, but with street people it’s always hard to tell.
Like most Southern Nevada motorists, I’ve been approached by a wide variety of beggars and panhandlers whose “Will work for food” signs advertise more theory than practice. From time to time someone has approached the car and offered to clean the windshield, but the results usually considerably reduced the visibility from partly cloudy to San Francisco in a heavy fog.
This time was different. He bent to the task with uncommon vigor, managing to clean the front windshield and two side windows before it was time to place our order. I gave him a couple bucks and he actually seemed grateful.
“Can I finish the job?” he asked, his brow bathed in sweat. “I can get that back window for you.”
I am of conflicting minds when it comes to the homeless and the hustlers on the street. Part of me remains the blue-collar progressive born long ago into a Catholic household in Henderson. “Help the poor whenever possible,” I hear my mother say. “Walk a mile in the other man’s shoes,” my father’s voice echoes. “There but for the grace of God …” and on it goes until I reach for the spare change.
The other part of me has grown a little tired of getting hit on and hustled in shopping center parking lots, at stoplights, at the library and outside the convenience store. That’s when another voice reminds me not to make eye contact and refuse to cough up a single quarter to folks who are more likely to use the donation for booze than baby formula. Of course, it’s easy to enforce your personal moral standards when you can afford your own booze and the baby never goes hungry.
I try to teach my daughter Amelia the golden rule, but there are many days I fail to follow it myself.
Maybe it was the heat, or the fact Amelia began lobbying on his behalf, but this guy managed to cut through the daily cynicism for a few minutes and remind me just how lucky I am to be the one in line and not the one working the line.
His name is Tommy. He just turned 30. He’s from Tucson, he said, a 2004 graduate of Canyon del Oro High.
“I went through a mishap,” he said after we’d picked up our food. “I’m basically just trying to get my life straight. I worked at the Golden Nugget and the Mob Museum when I first came out here. I was making some bad choices. I was living with a lady. She kicked me out.”
In the process, he said he lost much of his personal paperwork. He not only found himself on the street, admittedly through his own indiscretions, but also was without identification.
“I had to start brand new,” he said. “I had to call Vital Statistics.”
He blamed his homelessness and lack of a steady job on not having a Social Security card. Although he said he wasn’t a drug addict, he spoke the language of someone conversant in the world of rehabilitation and mental health. He admitted he suffers from depression and “self medicates” with marijuana and, I suspected, maybe some other things.
“I’m just trying to get my life straight,” he said. “I’m trying to do the right thing.”
I asked him about the effort he put in on the windows. He said it wasn’t his intention to be without a job and a place to live. But when he searched his memory, he admitted that this December will mark his third year on the street.
And the windows?
“It’s better than just holding a sign out here,” Tommy said. “I’m waiting for that break. Honestly, I’m praying for it. I pray every day.”
As he walked toward his next potential customer, he turned back and said, “Thank you, brother. God bless you.”
Driving away, I thanked the man who washed my windows and helped me see more clearly.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. He can be reached at 702-383-0295 or email@example.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith