The Buddha on the Side Road of the Road

Kathie Gibboney

She comes slowly down the street like a shadow moving through the night, there at the dim edge of the affluent Palisades. The darling daughter requested a Subway Sandwich (dubious, I know) so I’ve come to this strip mall where homeless people sometimes gather.  

“Oh please,” I thought turning away from the shrouded woman and quickly strode towards my car.  “I don’t want to give you anything. Don’t ask me. I can hardly afford this questionable food product, I still need to buy laundry detergent and we don’t know how we’re going to pay the State Board of Equalization.”

She comes closer.  I am almost to my car, keys in hand.  Then she stops, as if frozen, standing statue still under the streetlamp.  She does not speak but I feel her watching me. I open the car door and hop in, grateful to have avoided the encounter.  After starting my car I glance over for a moment, whether curious or compelled, I don’t know. But she is gone. Vanished in the night, returned to her scuffling journey, unaided by me.  As I drive away a thought flashes through my mind. What if she was some goddess in disguise, a magical white witch from a fairy tale or Jesus himself?

On a benevolent, good hair day, I can be the Lady Bountiful, bestowing random assorted change, even a buck on one I deem in need.  Handing over money to someone outside the supermarket, offering cash to a woman with her little daughter. This in spite of warnings from well minded and concerned citizens who advise, “Don’t give them money.  It will only encourage them.”

It is the collective term, “them,” that bothers me.  I know each person on the street is different, has their own story; victim, hustler, loner, vet, addict, free spirit, mentally impaired, and those who have fallen between the ever-widening cracks.

With more and more people homeless haunting our cities it is hard to not become hardened to their plight, to feel resentful, manipulated and want to look away.  Indeed, once I almost angrily threw some money at a woman in the Target parking lot who assailed me pleading she needed money because her husband was crazy. “Look at mine!” I was tempted to yell. But where do they go during the rain?     

A few weeks later, while buying gas, I notice a young man standing next to a car with the hood up.  Then I see an older woman walk out of the mini-mart on her phone and join him. Perhaps she’s his mother.  They look distressed and I assume they are having car trouble and are stranded. “Oh no,” I think. “I don’t want to get involved with this.”

Will I end up having to drive them somewhere?  Give them money? I could get in my car and just drive away.  I look back over at the young man, who is maybe 15, in some rock-and-roll t-shirt and has long Jesus hair; his mother looks haggard and is tattooed. A weary motorcycle Mary.  I walk over.

“Hi, are you having car trouble?  Do you need some help?”

        The boy answers, “Yeah, but we’ve called the auto club.  They’re on the way.”

The tattooed mother chimes in, “On, thanks so much for asking; we probably just need a new battery.”  Then she laughs. “Maybe they’ll bring me a new one too.”

The son laughs along with her and they stand there, happy in spite of their predicament.  Suddenly I want to take them home. To give them something, but they are fine, complete and I can be on my way, spared of inconvenience. “Thanks again,” they say waving good-bye.

Once when the Beleaguered Husband and I first lived together in Venice, a knock came at our bedroom door.  A stranger stood in the night and began talking in that fast desperate style, something about needing five dollars for the bus to get home to his kid.  Back then there were not people hustling on every corner asking for money and Michael and I were newly in love and ready to smile on the world. We handed over the five and sent the desperado on his way with all good wishes.  He promised to return in the future to repay us, but his travels must have taken him in a different direction for we never saw him again.

I wonder, if you give something in good faith or innocence and the offering is misused (drugs, Starbucks, donations to the wrong political party), is the gracious spirit that attempted to help still out there, somewhere in the ether, adding to a universal good will or is it maligned by the scam?   

Proposition H has passed. Its quarter of a cent tax is championed as a way to help homelessness. Contributors of H vary from liberal groups to city leaders on both sides, to dreaded developers promising affordable housing when it is they who have helped eliminate low-cost housing to begin with.  It’s hard to believe it can really help. Homelessness is so complex, bureaucracy inefficient and greed alive and well. Whatever good the proposition can accomplish will certainly not be immediate, leaving us all to deal with the problem as we see fit, which at times tests our humanity.

And, so, I waver back and forth. Some days knowing if circumstances were a bit different the husband and I could find ourselves on a corner with our own sign, “Will Work For Surfboards and Chardonnay,” other days just bitter, tired of feeling called on to help out, to lend a hand, to find the Jesus in myself.

On my way to teach Sunday School, stopped at Topanga and PCH someone is there working the meridian. In a decidedly un-Sunday spirit, I look the other way.   Across the street at, Oasis Imports, is a statue of a giant Buddha facing the sea. The Buddha looks powerful, awe-inspiring and mighty. I imagine sitting on his lap, cradled as we look out to sea together.  Then the light changes. I move forward and look quickly at the person on the side of the road. And there is a guy with the most beautiful smile and glowing happy eyes. And he nods as if he had been waiting for me to look over. I know he wants nothing from me.  He only wanted to give me something. A perfect Buddha brilliant smile.

Though I look for him whenever I come to that corner, I have not seen him again.  But I will someday, I know.


Kathie Gibboney

It has been said that Kathie Gibboney invented the Unicorn, which she neither admits nor denies, as it might reveal her true age. Kathie is an essayist, reporter, and poet for MMN with her column, "My Corner of The Canyon." She lives happily in a now-empty nest in Topanga, CA with The Beleaguered Husband and a marmalade cat.

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