The Panhandler’s Breath

By Robin Dance
He slipped in sideways between the closing elevator doors,
as if he were late to a meeting; he pressed the “5” without looking.
Instead of suit and tie, though, baggy pants and faded navy hung on his tall,
slim frame…and his stealth entry stiffened the hairs on the back of my
I had noticed him a few seconds earlier, just after we had
parted a sea of clamorous teens. He was smiling, grandfatherly, standing maybe
30 feet away where the electric shuttle picks up.
I had no idea he had been watching us, studying us, predator
patiently awaiting his next prey.
The four of us were sealed in a four- by six-foot metal
tomb. Tomb–that thought really scampered across my mind. I wondered if he had
a knife in his pocket. I wanted to protect my son. Fight or flight pumped
adrenaline but there was no where to run.
Extreme and ridiculous, these thoughts – and more – flashed
through my mind. The Stranger began speaking.
“Yessir, I see you’re a family man with your wife and
your son here…” and he nodded in my and my son’s direction.
“…you see I’m homeless and all I’ve got…” and
on queue, he reached into his left pocket and pulled out two old pennies
blackened with age. Two cents to his name?! It was all too contrived, too
practiced, and I didn’t believe a word he was saying.
It was then I smelled it ~ the small space lent itself to
that ~ and I doubted my doubt.
His breath.
It wasn’t the scent of alcohol. His eyes weren’t red, his
voice didn’t waver; his wizened face matched his graying hair.
His breath was morning’s, zoo breath, the pet name I’d given
to the scent inhaled when kissing my children awake when they were
He needed to brush his teeth. I wondered how long it had
been since he brushed his teeth.
The elevator door opened and I handed him my leftover pizza
as my son and I brushed past him. My husband handed him a bill and the Stranger
thanked and God blessed him.
The elevator door closed behind us. Conflicted, I was
We got in the car and blurted first reaction–
“I didn’t believe a word he said.”
“That made me nervous.”
“I wonder if he’ll really eat the pizza.”
In the quiet, we were left to our own thoughts,
contemplating the right thing to do. At the end of the day, this is what I
decided: It doesn’t matter whether or not his story is true; for an old man to
resort to begging, he has to be desperate. The money my husband gave him will
never be missed. It was a reminder we’ve been entrusted with much and given
much. Materially, yes, but more so spiritually. Loved, chosen, forgiven,
redeemed, graced, lavished–every spiritual blessing. E v e r y.
There’s a part of me that wishes I would
have been brave enough to ask the man his story, made sure he knew he was
loved…and bought him a tooth brush.
Later, it occurred to me he could have been an angel.
Doesn’t that mean generosity, kindness and hospitality is always the right
response? Then it’s not about you or the stranger or the circumstance, it’s
about a simple, God-glorifying response.
Had we entertained an angel unaware? We’ll never know.
But it wouldn’t be the first time the Breath of Heaven
smelled like a zoo.


In a decades-old, scandalous affair with her
husband, Robin also confesses mad crushes on her three teens. As Southern as
sugar-shocked tea, she’s a recovering people pleaser who advocates talking to
strangers. A memoirist, Compassion International Blogger, and Maker-upper of
words, Robin writes for her own site, PENSIEVE,
and also for (in)courage by DaySpring (a subsidiary of Hallmark) and Simple
Mom. She loves to get to know readers through their blog comments and on
Twitter and Pinterest.

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