A couple of years ago, when an elusive muse was making me wonder whether I should swap writing for some less frustrating avocation, I went for a stroll. Within a block I spied a pile of books resting on an empty bench by a bus stop. On inspection, one of them turned out to be none other than The Habit of Being, a collection of letters in which Flannery O’Connor shares her opinions on everything under the sun — in particular, writing. Chalking up its sudden appearance to divine providence, I took the book home and let it inspire me.
If you want to get all first cause-y about it, it was a case of divine providence in action, of God working through some kind soul who suddenly discovered she had more books than space. Since then, I’ve had occasion to notice all sorts of providential bundles lying visible to the searching eye: a box of Christmas cookies resting on a low brick wall near campus; pairs of slightly worn shoes lined up neatly by the curb. Easily the most extravagant offering was a Ziploc baggie containing several pounds of turkey breast laid atop a trash can just before Thanksgiving weekend.
Along with fasting and prayer, almsgiving is one of the pillars of Lent. And it seems to me that leaving little care packages where the needy are likely to find them is by no means the worst way of doing it. Perhaps donations aren’t so easily claimed on tax returns, but on the plus side, you can rest assured you won’t be practicing your righteousness before others. Indeed, you’ll run the risk of being mistaken for a litterbug.
Better yet, at least for the conscience of the donor, it offers the chance to make good use of a commodity over which many find it easier to weep tears of shame. I refer to excess food. As Jonathan Bloom dutifully reports in Alternet, Americans waste 590 pounds of food every year — enough to fill the Rose Bowl. This translates to half a pound per person, per day. It would be lovely if this wastage could simply be handed over to the nearest food bank, but much of it comes in quantities and conditions unsuitable for that. Let’s face it; there’s not much you can do with a half-eaten hoagie from Jimmy John’s or the dregs of a refill bag of AMC popcorn besides place them somewhere accessible to those hungry and desperate enough to grab them.
Take it from someone who’s dumpster-dived on occasion: Spying either of these prizes in the open would have felt like a second Christmas. Two or three day-old slices from Little Caesar? Very heaven. As Dorothy Day recognized when she handed over a diamond ring to a beggar, even those knocked off the grid and into la vie authentique can stand a bourgeois amenity or two.
As of October 2014, 71 cities have passed, or tried to pass, laws that restrict the large-scale distribution of food to homeless people, either by forcing would-be distributors to obtain permits to set up shop in public places (e.g., parks, or by tightly regulating the type of food they may distribute). Meanwhile, in a 2013 survey of 25 cities conducted by the United States Conference of Mayors, 91 percent of the cities surveyed reported an increase in persons demanding food assistance, and 80 percent reported an increase in visits to food pantries and emergency kitchens. Food-sharing laws may have reduced the disorder that follows when large numbers of homeless gather in a single place, but they haven’t done much to eliminate hunger.
If anecdotal evidence means anything, the homeless and hungry have taken up the slack by accosting individuals. (Phoenix has succeeded in passing laws against food sharing, but walking the 200 yards from my front door to the Circle K on the corner means braving a gauntlet of pleas for spare change.) Human-to-human encounters, complete with meaningful eye contact, sound stirring in principle, but in practice they can be annoying or even frightening. And of course even the bravest and most generous soul will wonder what his dollar will really buy – a sandwich, like the man is saying, or a forty of King Kobra? By planting food — or clothes, or books — in the open, a donor can practice charity while guarding his frail or tender heart.
The final benefit of blind almsgiving belongs strictly to the recipient. With the donor gone from the picture, these small but timely gifts seem to be coming straight out of the blue — or out of heaven, like manna. When it comes to stirring reflection on first causes and teaching trust in providence, there’s a lot to be said for cutting out the middleman.
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. He blogs at Diary of a Wimpy Catholic.