A Hot Coffee, a short story for Christmas by Liz McSkeane
Whenever she visits her favourite coffee shop, which is approximately every other day, she sees him sitting there in all weather conditions. On this day, a week before Christmas, he is occupying his customary spot on the pavement besides the cafe’s door, close enough to be visible to passers-by but not so close that he is visible through the plate-glass window, lest he annoy the customers or proprietor inside.
For the last few weeks, a section of the shopping centre’s forecourt has been roped off to create a small market area, where two men operating out of a temporary Portakabin have been doing a brisk business selling pine trees from the Dublin mountains for €60 apiece. The homeless man’s spot, if he is homeless, is a few paces behind them. He is wrapped in an old sleeping bag, his head is covered by a woollen hat, and one gloveless hand extends an empty paper cup to those contemplating the Christmas trees or passing shoppers.
The day is clear and bright, but extremely cold. There has been discussion of issuing a yellow snow warning. She rushes from her car to the quaint cafe, inhaling the scent of Fairtrade coffee and warm cinnamon rolls. She places her bag on the seat and joins the queue (which she really shouldn’t do) to place her usual order: an americano and a toasted bagel. While she is paying with her card, the amount deducted from her account flashes up on the screen. Simultaneously, an image of the man sitting on the outside pavement flashes into her mind’s eye.
Many years ago, one of her old friends used to mock people who donated to charities or even gave a few coins to a street beggar. Not because the needy lacked merit. However, he insisted that the primary effect, indeed the purpose, of giving money was to make the donor feel better. It made no difference. Indeed, it exacerbated the situation by covering up the cracks and delaying the moment when the beggar would awaken to the structural oppression that had landed him on the street and rebel. If you wanted to support a just revolution for a just society free of poverty, you had to ignore the street beggar.
That is not why she responds so infrequently to frequent requests for change, a few coppers for a hostel, or the silent pleas on makeshift cardboard notices that are impossible to avoid while walking around the city – I am hungry. Of course not. However, there are so many people who live in such desperation. And on the rare occasions when she has succumbed to the impulse to pause and deposit a few coins into an outstretched hand or cup, the warm glow of having done something good never lasts long. Occasionally, it does not come at all, and when it does, it is accompanied by an unexplained sinking feeling. What difference would her few coins make in the end? And was he, in fact, a genuine beggar? You simply had no idea.
Additionally, if you stopped to give money to one homeless person, the impulse to stop for the next person in need would be significantly stronger. If you’re going to give to someone, why not another? Why is this not applicable to everyone? Who is to say that this particular man, sitting on a freezing December pavement, has a stronger claim on her generosity than anyone else simply by virtue of his patch being on her way to her favourite cafe?
However, none of this appears to matter today. The usual reservations about what he may or may not do with any hypothetical coins she places in the cup, such as spend them on alcohol or drugs, have faded into a haze of Christmas lights, music, a bright blue sky, and the scent of pine needles. All that is left here is a poor man wrapped in an old sleeping bag in the bitter cold, and though he is hidden from her line of sight, as she turns away from the counter to carry her bagel and coffee to her reserved table, his image rises before her as vividly as if he were standing directly in front of her.
Read more • irishtimes.com
Source: Coffee Talk