The Vagrant Gift

von Ariel

The Vagrant Gift

At age 14 I was a willowy little thing with long blonde hair and braces. Not yet old enough to drive, I was grown-up enough to ride the bus from our town of Gresham, Oregon to downtown Portland for my orthodontist appointments. I liked going to Portland – it made me feel worldly and mature. On the way home I frequently stopped at the street corner flower vendors for a bunch of bright mini carnations to bring back for a teacher or the school librarian – just a little gift to give something back to those who were investing in me.

But on one bright spring day, I got a gift of my own from one of the most surprising sources. After my appointment, my braces newly tightened, I sauntered downtown several blocks to stand on the street where the bus back to Gresham came by every 20 minutes. Even now, more than 5 decades later I can still recall the bounce in my step and how the day felt so crisp and clean and ripe. I was dressed in blue chinos, a gauzy white button down peasant shirt and my “Blue Uglies”. My Blue Uglies were a pair of ankle-high lace up blue suede shoes with crepe soles that I wore every day – rain or shine. They were my favorite shoes, my lucky shoes and to my Mom’s chagrin, in my opinion my only shoes of any worth.

I recall that on this day, I breezed down the 6 blocks to my corner which was situated close to the river, bordering on a slightly seedier section of town. When I arrived, I leaned my back against the sun-warmed window, rested one foot against its sill and relaxed in the sunlight. I could feel my hair down my back and I felt at ease, beautiful and as if I was in sync with the world.

As I reclined there, waiting for the bus, I noticed a vagrant* ambling up the next block. As he crossed the street and headed my way, I felt curiously calm. He was a young man, probably early 20’s, carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag. His pants were frayed, his old tan corduroy jacket had the cuffs rolled up, his light brown hair scruffy. As he came my direction he repeatedly stopped folks on the street to ask them if they had a bottle opener. Each individual he greeted veered left or right or backed up into shops with open doors so as to avoid this man. I remember thinking that something in this picture just wasn’t right. This street person evoked such a strong reaction from passersby but he seemed to be non-threatening. Of course I was a teen and as such perhaps I didn’t register the real danger but I felt as if much of his actions were for show, or shock value or almost as if it was a costume he had adorned. I had no doubt that this young man was indeed a vagrant but somehow there seemed more to him than met the eye.
The fellow continued my way, repelling people left and right and as he moved past me, I was reclining in a perfect beam of sunlight shafting between the clouds. Suddenly he stopped, turned his head, brown eyes steadily on mine he said, “Do me a favor. Just promise me you will never rip anybody off.”
Without thinking, I answered, “OK. I promise.”

And there it was, a promise to a person I didn’t even know that I would never steal from anyone. My gaze hit the pavement. In a flash I recalled the two times I had stolen. Once, I had taken less than a dollar’s worth of candy from Safeway. Another time, my girlfriend Judy and I had lifted a piece of red fabric with little white dots from a local store which she had then turned into a halter top which I had happily worn. Suddenly I didn’t feel so happy about that top.
I instinctively knew there was more to the story of this young man. Had innocent little childhood pranks of his own led him to where he was today? I looked up to watch him continue down the street but incredible as it seemed he was gone. I jumped away from the wall. No way could he have made the trip to the corner in that moment when my eyes were averted. I ran down the block, checking in each store as I passed. I made it to the corner and looked left and right but the mysterious young man in the tattered clothes, with the bottle of beer had vanished.
Slowly I returned to the bus stop. My young mind was awhirl with possibilities: Had I actually been lost in thought? – no it was only a moment. Was he an angel? Maybe someone sent by God with a message that I could ignore at my peril.
Whatever the reason his words and my promise made an impact that is felt even to this day. The following week, I went to Safeway and gave them the 87 cents I owed, telling the manager I owed them for candy for which I hadn’t paid. I went to that little store and told them the truth. I paid the $1.17 for that piece of fabric and had them wrap the receipt as a gift. I gave the package to Judy, telling her I was done stealing and that I had paid our debt. Not too long ago a teller at the grocery store under charged me for the items in my cart and I made sure he put it through again at the appropriate rate.
The promise I made to this man, and myself is not one I have difficulty keeping. Perhaps he was an angel. Perhaps he was just a fellow who had lost his way and didn’t want a pretty young girl to follow in his footsteps. All I know is that I am grateful for his advice. Being honest belongs to that clean crisp spring day of my youth. It keeps things clean and crisp even now.


*We recognize that after half a century, the term “vagrant” is very out dated. This blog is an excerpt from our book, Practical Enlightenment and was written from Ariel’s 14 year old’s perspective.

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Very sweet story and written wonderful! Thanks for sharing, Ariel! It felt like I am standing next to you 🙂