The twentysomething kid tumbled out of the car nearly crying. At first, I was judgmental—a gangbanger who lacked respect for authority and rules—who most of all, at that moment, had fled when he rear-ended my car on the freeway.
We caught up and then there it was.
But I softened up when I saw his age. His declarations that he was poor, wearing a Kennedy high school lanyard, wearing a pikachu watch, a spiderman t-shirt. He said that his car was named Sally. He said that he was regretful. He now wanted to do the right thing. He a made a mistake, driving under the influence, driving without insurance or a license. As we spoke at the side of the road, blocking a whole lane of traffic, he was pleading, his hands high, and his mouth turned into a frown. Mercy, he said.
Later, he told me that he was poor. He couldn’t even afford groceries. And yet. That he didn’t have a bank account.
What could I do in the face of all of this? I am privileged that when I was 19 and rear-ended a car (at 5 mph), the only punishment I had was that my parents were furious that I wasn’t paying attention and my premiums went up. But my parents helped me out since I didn’t necessarily have the money. I am also privileged to believe that the world requires hard work, but I am also quite aware that my access to funds, to a lifelong method of diligence and grit, and a lasting support system…that is privilege. I know that if I ever ran out of personal funds, I have people to turn to who would support me. Friends, family…even acquaintances. Because I have proven my worth in other ways.
Does this kid have that kind of access? With my limited scope, he doesn’t. I made a suggestion that he sell the phone so that he could cough up the money that he owes me for the damage. But in doing so, I am taking away something that is truly helping him.
I am a progressive like the next San Francisco resident. I believe that it’s sad that the homeless are on the street. But I also believe that they are more likely to find illegal ways to find money—stealing bikes or electronic devices and reselling all of them. But they’re doing what it takes.
I told the kid that he has to pay for the damage. But I stopped myself from being cruel and demanding. Because it’s not that I want him to be homeless. I don’t want to be the cause of that. I want him to learn a lesson, especially from the mercy I gave. I don’t want to be the reason why he starts to hate the government and the world, because I took the money from him. I want to give the kid the hope that he can do better next time.