On 21st Street, between L and K, there is a homeless man who sits perched atop his small pile of possessions, observing, with a kind of detached curiosity, Washington’s harried pedestrians. I pass him twice daily, and he’s become one of the fixtures of my walk. In the morning, he smokes his pipe, the fragrance of which hits me, still half-asleep, like a second alarm. In the evening, he tends to retreat into his tent, leaving one flap open to continue his observation of the street. He never begs for money or addresses the passersby, though he often talks to himself in Chinese. There is a small piece of cardboard next to him that reads (in English and in Chinese), “Man for himself.” At some point in the last few weeks, he seems to have acquired a cellphone. I passed him one evening snapping selfies in front of rush hour traffic.
When I met his gaze after some months of this daily walk-by, I realized that he recognized me. We were strangers, and we weren’t. Should I bring him something? An extra banana in the morning? I began to feel vaguely responsible, but I delayed getting involved: If I offered him something once, would that mean bringing something every day? Would he expect it when he saw me or would I feel guilty if I passed by empty-handed? More than anything, I realized I dreaded the righteous, self-satisfied feeling that comes with performing unsolicited acts of charity. I hated feeling good for doing something so infinitesimally small, for letting his suffering become a prop for my vanity. And no matter how I chastised myself, I knew, to some degree, that it would.
Read the full article in The New Republic