Joshua Tree is one of my happy places, and I got the opportunity to spend some time with one of my best friends there this weekend. That may seem like a crazy idea to most people, because it was 105 degrees outside, but our Airbnb had a very nice pool, so we did no hiking, a lot of eating, and relaxing by the pool and lazily walked up the street of Pioneertown, enjoying the scenery and sweating.
It’s interesting how cautious I feel about traveling a together as women. We were at the local saloon that we had walked to from our Airbnb and the seemingly nice man at the bar asked us where we were from. We talk to everyone, so we told him, and he asked us where we were staying. We told him at a local Airbnb where our hosts had been participating in a local art installation that was a mermaid gala and parade. He then proceeded to ask us how many people were staying there with us. And this is when my friend and I were officially done with the conversation. I am sure it was harmless. Maybe he was thinking of renting his local vacation home on Airbnb and didn’t know what it was, but buddy take a hint. Don’t ask two single women who are traveling how many people are staying where they are. IT’S CREEPY.
The second day we were walking to breakfast, and there was a group of three guys who was standing in the street and talking to each other. They looked harmless, but I think for me it’s hard to understand why anyone would be standing outside in over 100 degree heat when they didn’t seem to be on their way anywhere. I tried to keep my distance from them, and I watched my friend closely, as I cautiously smiled at the men.
Here’s the other thing. There is this stereotype about desert people that they are all meth heads, addicts, etc, and as a single woman traveling with another woman, I take these stereotypes into consideration while scoping out my surroundings. I honestly don’t think that most people in Joshua Tree fall into this stereotype, but some of them do, and the world seems to be getting scarier and scarier, so these are the things I consider.
Then something happened today. I honestly don’t think my friend will be happy with me sharing this story, but maybe she will understand why I am telling it after I write this.
We were walking back to my car in the 105 degree heat, and a man who was sitting on the sidewalk eating a yogurt blurted something out to us about getting him something to eat. We asked what he wanted and he said a sandwich or something. We quickly went in the local health food store, which is a fun little store, but they didn’t have sandwiches or ready to eat meals, and it was expensive so my friend went a few doors down into a Vegan sandwich store where the cheapest sandwich was $13+. The bottom line is that neither one of us would have bought one of these sandwiches ourselves unless we were very hungry, so eventually we thought about giving the man some cash, but instead looked at him and decided to walk away. He had a yogurt. He clearly wasn’t going to starve immediately. My friend felt guilty and I felt like it wasn’t a big deal.
Until we were driving away. Then I thought about the man, and what choices he had made to get himself to a place where he was begging on the sidewalk in 105 degree heat. And then I thought about my father. I don’t know much about the man, except that he died relatively young due to psoriasis of the liver, and he may or not not have been known as the town drunk in Bakersfield. I believe he was in a wheelchair for much of his adult life, because he was born before the Polio vaccine and I am sure his health deteriorated as he aged and continued to drink himself to an early death. I thought about Bakersfield in the summer, and how hot it was, and I wondered if my own father had ever been so intoxicated that he slurred at passersby to feed him or give him money. And as I drove away, I let myself cry a second for the man we hadn’t fed, but also for my father, whose challenges I have never really understood, but that I feel like I am piecing together more and more as I age.
Later tonight at dinner, my friend was embarrassed when I shared the story about the man. I understand why. I understand that we are called to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. I understand that we are called to treat all humanity as we want to be treated, but I also understand that we are humans. For me the risk of having to interact with that man anymore than we already had was enough to not want to even hand him a few dollars. Plus, I mean, he made his choices, and he is in that place for a reason. Perhaps it has to do with institutional poverty or the inability to get the care he needed from the right mental health care professionals. Or perhaps there were people in his life that gave him many many chances, and ultimately decided he was toxic in their lives.
It’s kind of a sad story, and it doesn’t have a happy ending, except this is my take away. My friend and I were fortunate enough to have gone on a three day getaway weekend, where we somewhat frugally stayed at an Airbnb and split most meals all weekend. We are both women who work very hard, and who have faced some challenges in our lives, but have overcome them by making a series of choices that have allowed us to reach perhaps a somewhat a fuller potential than that man on the street has. And we have both loved, cared for, served, and given many different people in our lives many different chances, and we didn’t owe that man anything. I will say a prayer for him and send all the positive love and light I can muster tonight, however I will also stand confidently in my choice to walk away and not engage. You can’t save everyone, but you can look at them and gain greater empathy and compassion for the struggling people in the world and maybe even in your own life.
I am not sure what Jesus would have done, but Jesus could make bread turn into enough to feed a hell of a lot of people, and we couldn’t turn our $3 cash into the $13 we needed to buy a hungry man a sandwich. I think Jesus would understand. I think Jesus would be proud us is for all the light we shine into the lives of the people we know. Actually, I am pretty sure Jesus is hella proud of us. I know our moms are!!!!!