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Pockets of grace amid the Downtown hustle

Friday, November 14, 2003

Sometimes grace hits you between the eyes with a two-by-four. It can leave you with a warm and happy feeling or it can shake your assumptions about life.

This newspaper's Saturday advice columnist had one such moment a few days ago. When Catherine Specter, the wise and gentle guru behind "Cat's Call," agreed to join me for lunch, I assumed insights into the human condition would fall effortlessly from her lips.

What neither of us expected was an actual demonstration of her powers before we made it to the restaurant. While strolling to lunch, a middle-aged man stopped us. He looked exasperated and apologized for the awkwardness his plea for a few dollars might cause us, but he was eager to scrape together bus fare to Irwin. He was a fast talker who couldn't afford the luxury of pride, he said.

"I had to pay $100 to the mechanic who towed my car," he said, piling up details about an accident that allegedly occurred earlier in the morning. Left unexplained was why he didn't accompany his towed car and the mechanic back to Irwin.

"Look at this," he said extending a swollen index finger that somehow "proved" his story. It was one of those delicious non sequiturs that only works in Pittsburgh. I stepped back to watch Cat Specter in action.

Without pausing, Cat pulled $2 from her wallet and handed it to the grateful man, who clinched the bills like a trophy before slinking away. A group of construction workers who watched the exchange asked Cat how much she'd been "taken" for.

"He got us for $4," one of the men said with a laugh, which might have made her feel better for a second, but that was before he immediately confessed they hadn't really given the man anything.

Sure, I laughed. We all did, but it was a laugh of admiration. Cat was willing to help a man who was, in all probability, a scoundrel. Still, the 2 percent possibility he was telling the truth was worth the risk. She believes the burden of living a good life means acting generously, even when it's against her best interests. In the end, Cat was comfortable with her decision. She reserved the right to take a chance.

Lately, the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh have become a minefield of competing "gimmes" with plenty of opportunities for grace if you're looking. Packs of adolescent boys wearing grimy clothes hawk overpriced candy for fictional charities on school nights. White kids sporting a "heroin chic" demeanor squat outside fast food joints bumming for the fare they say they need to get back to New York.

Old-school panhandlers have begun to feel the weight of diminishing returns as too many hands compete for the same discretionary quarters. Between the street musicians and incense dealers trailing their aromatic wares on corners formerly manned by beggars on milk crates, Downtown's narrow corridors have never been more congested.

Over the years, I've dropped plenty of dollars into outstretched palms with varying degrees of resentment or satisfaction. I give to some panhandlers regularly, but I'm picky. There's a heavy-set black woman who hobbles around town with a cane and borrowed children. I give money to her because she was once tutored by a friend. I don't know her name, but she looks like a "Wanda" to me.

Two months ago, I was walking down Smithfield when I saw Wanda walking a few feet ahead of me. She was holding hands with a man I assumed was her boyfriend. She looked happy and not as pathetic as usual. Suddenly, Wanda and her beau stopped at the corner where a bearded man I regularly give money to was sitting.

That's when she reached into her pocket and dropped a fist full of coins into the man's cup. She then said, "God bless you" and crossed the street. I was stunned. In my whole life, I'd never seen one beggar drop money into another beggar's cup, though it's something that probably happens all the time.

Over the years, I've dropped plenty of coins into both of their cups, but they had no idea they were suddenly returning the favor. I couldn't imagine being tight-fisted again after seeing a grace-filled moment like that.

Tony Norman can be reached at or 412-263-1631.

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