Yesterday he chose to zero in on our table. "Can't you ladies help me out?" he entreated, for all his shabbiness and twitchiness sounding quite normal and well-spoken. He hung over us as we looked at him and each other in uncomfortable silence, feeling embarrassed and guilty, not quite sure what to do.
He sat down at the table next to ours. One of my friends reached for her purse.
"What, are you going to give him some money?" I asked, reaching for my purse, too, figuring that if she was going to give him money, well, I guessed I would, too.
"No," said my friend, "but I'll buy him something to eat if he wants."
We agreed that was a good idea but the man declined our offer of food and drink. He needed bus money, he said forlornly, to get downtown to the shelter. After a while he drifted away from us to keep trying his luck at the other tables until a staff member finally escorted him out.
When one of the waitstaff came by our table we asked her about the panhandler. She said he comes in every day now looking for money. She said she feels bad for him, all the staff does, and they've told him he's free to sit in the restaurant and stay warm but that's not what he wants. He wants money so they have to tell him to leave. She wondered why he doesn't just get a job. She knew they were hiring at Chipotle.
Within the half hour the panhandler was back inside and this time he was quickly escorted out. A short time later a police wagon showed up and stayed parked for a while outside Panera.
I asked the same table worker we'd talked to before if they'd often called the police on the man. She said that as far as she knew this was the first time they had called the police. She felt badly about calling the police on the guy but, well, he was getting to be a problem.
My friends and I and probably everyone else in Panera talked for a while about the young panhandler, how he must be an addict, how if he'd been a black man the police would have been called the very first time, within minutes, how giving him money would only be doing him harm, how free bus passes are available, how he must not have been hungry, how nobody needs to go hungry in this town, how there's food and shelter available for those in need, how we need more mental health resources in this country, how the guy could have at least sit in here and stayed warm if he'd wanted to, how if we'd thought giving him some money would have helped him, well, of course we would have, how none the less some people, when he comes up to their table, do always give him a few dollars, talking, talking, talking about the young man, talking away the pinging of our consciences until one of the Posse members sighed, "I guess that was our WWJD moment."
Our friend was right. And we, in truth, were clueless. Because if Jesus had been present I expect he would have cast out the man's demons out on the spot. But all we could think of to do was talk.