Iced Tea & The Strip

Iced TeaI did something in Vegas that made quite a few passersby uncomfortable. In a city known for tolerating proclivities of all kinds, I take pride in the fact that I literally stopped foot traffic on the Strip. Most people froze; some continued walking but executed a wide berth. A few mouths went slack jaw. One person pointed while another shook his head.

All because I gave money to a homeless person. Never mind Chewbacca and Yoda dressed up in costumes too matted to pass muster at an actual theme park. Ignore the women posing for photos in g-strings and pasties while families scoot their children down the sidewalk. Pay no mind to the men snapping stiff cards dotted with promises of a good time that is one 800 number away. Acknowledge someone’s humanity, though, and you’ve clearly crossed the line.

If you’ve ever visited the Strip, you know that the pedestrian bridges are peppered with all sorts of street performers, hustlers, and people who are homeless. Or appear to be homeless. I know that plenty of people approach beggars and panhandlers with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the most blatant assault on anyone’s good nature, I once watched a woman pinch her child so it would cry more loudly when people passed. I’ve also read the stories of people who outearn me by hustling on the street. I get it. Some people are fakers.

For the most part, I choose to give to organizations that target homelessness. If I do give to actual street people, I tend to carry kits or food gift cards of small denominations. But if you want to know the god’s honest truth, if I’m carrying cash or coins, sometimes I give that, too.

In Vegas, I didn’t carry a lot of cash on me. In fact, I usually never carry cash on me. Period. It runs through my fingers like water. But on our last day, Mr. P and I were panting our way down the Strip in the 111-degree heat — yeah, yeah, it’s a dry heat, I hear you — and I was sipping drinking chugging an iced tea*. A man on the street was holding a sign asking for money, and our eyes locked for the briefest of instants. Instead of asking for money, he said, “Is that iced tea cold?” If there were more than a few drops left in the can, I would have stopped and handed it to him. Instead, I darted away without looking back.

After barreling into the CVS and assuring the sales clerk that I had already purchased my one can of tea, I scooped up another and paid for it with a small bill and some coins that were knocking around in the bottom of my purse. Then, I walked back to the man, approaching him from behind. He never saw me coming. I called out to him. I offered him the bottle, and he immediately set down his cup of coins and opened it with both hands. “Just what I needed,” he told me as he drew in a long sip. Then, I put the rest of my money in his cup and smiled.

This gesture wasn’t noble; it was necessary. In a world with people so consumed by themselves and things, I fear we’re losing sight of what really matters: each other. In that fleeting moment, I knew that I had to act. Is it possible that I was taken for a ride? Did I let my naivety and gullibility get the best of me? Could that man have sauntered away with pockets full of money? Absolutely. But it doesn’t matter.

I spent three days being swindled on the Strip. Every slot machine lever I pulled, every bet that I placed made me a sucker. And to what end? To entertain myself under the intoxicating neon lights and to line the mile-deep pockets of the casino magnates and hotel conglomerates. Steve Wynn certainly didn’t need an iced tea. This man did. So I bought him one.

Iced Tea & The Strip

25 thoughts on “Iced Tea & The Strip

  1. What a terrific gesture and you are absolutely right that many folks are losing sight of what matters. We spend money on ridiculous things and spend time watching ridiculous amounts of TV on ridiculous topics. When a man asks you if a drink is cold, he is thirsty – a basic human need (whether he has the money to go and buy it himself or not). Thanks for caring about people Penny. The world needs a lot more people like you!

    1. Thanks, Vicki. I needed this lesson, as well. And that was my exact thought. I wouldn’t think twice about putting $5 in a slot machine, so why would I think twice about buying someone a drink?! I know I didn’t change his world or anything, but I reminded myself of something very important (at least to me).

    1. Awww. Thanks, Des. And I’m totally not the best. I just chose to write about it. I’m confident (and hopeful!) that there are thousands upon thousands of people whose generosity far outstretches mine. It was an important reminder for me to see people as people, especially in Vegas, where everything and everyone are so surreal.

  2. I tend to feel uncomfortable giving money to panhandlers, but I do buy food for them if they ask. I guess buying someone a sandwich doesn’t make any long-term changes in their situation or the system, but it’s hard to walk by someone who says “Please help me, I’m hungry” without doing anything. Same with the iced tea — even if it didn’t make a long-term change in that man’s situation, at least he got some relief from the heat (and some kindness) for that brief period of time. I think it’s definitely worth it.

    1. I agree! It is a tricky and uncomfortable situation. Generally, I try to give to organizations where skilled individuals work with homeless populations. I figure these people are trained in how to help more effectively and in the long-run, as you pointed out. But I’m not sure I would have said no to anyone in that weather. It was blazing hot!

  3. Good for you. I know there are scammers too. They don’t outnumber the number of people in need, but a lot of people assume that’s the case. How exactly are the “deserving poor” supposed to prove their condition?
    I don’t often give to panhandlers. But sometimes I do, especially when the weather is uncomfortably cold or hot. Giving a nice cool drink to someone on a hot day is a great way to show compassion.

    1. You’re so right, Emily! How do we ask people to prove their struggles or how difficult their lives are? It was so hot and he was wearing so many layers. And I didn’t even think of how fortunate I was to stroll along and sip my tea, bobbing in and out of air-conditioned attractions and hotels. It was an important wake-up for me!

  4. Thanks for sharing! I’m with you – I give frequently and know that sometimes I am being taken, but it does not matter one bit. The act of being human, connecting, sharing and helping can never be a bad thing, in my opinion.

    1. Right. And I think of it as a gift. I’m sure I have friends who misuse gifts that I give. But once something is given, it’s not up to me to determine what others do or don’t do with it.

    1. That’s the perfect way to say it, Julie. I think he really wanted to be seen and heard. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget his face watching him drink that tea. I’m sure he’s seen far greater kindness before, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a reaction quite like that.

  5. I never carry cash or I’d probably help more. Like you, I don’t do well with it. One of the few good things about living in the desert is that you can more easily tell the fakes from the real folks. You see a guy with blonde hair and fair skin… There’s a VERY good chance that he’s lying or he’d be horribly sunburnt. Yeah yeah, it might be his first day out. But more than likely he’s scamming you and making the truly needy look bad.

    Glad you were able to help him. Especially given the conspicuous consumerism that most of us practice in Vegas, it’s kind of silly how many of us pass the homeless by. Myself included, though usually it’s a lack of cash.

    1. For sure! No judgement for people who don’t give – lots of reasons why and lots could happen behind the scenes, too. The only thing that frustrated me was how people reacted when they saw me give him a drink. Like if you don’t like it, go gawk at the 974316413 other things on the Strip that are far more bizarre 🙂 And that’s such an interesting point about giveaways in appearance. This man appeared to be wearing everything he owned and was so dirty, I really couldn’t tell you his skin tone. But again, it could have been a scam. I’ll never know.

  6. Such a sweet act; thanks for sharing this story. I agree that, while strategic generously to organizations you trust is important, so is simply being human and noticing others’ needs. It’s kind of sad that this was such a sight to behold in Vegas, but I’m glad people took notice! Maybe you’ll inspire someone else toward a similar kind act.

  7. Good for you! I tend not to carry cash either (at least not much), but there have been times I have given money or food to homeless people on the street. Like you, I generally give to organizations that help the homeless and the hungry, but it’s hard to pass by faces of actual people suffering. Or appearing to. I know there are fakers too, but I’d rather give to a couple of fakers than pass by a couple of people in actual need and do nothing. It’s worth a few bucks to keep our humanity intact.

  8. We have a major panhandling problem here where I live. It has gotten quite out of control. I prefer to restrict my giving to causes that I know will use the money responsibly and to help the most people possible. I think it’s interesting that this gesture of giving was so bizarre to people. Excellent piece!

    1. I have only been to Denver a few times, but I’m given to understand that they have a significant homeless population. What I really liked was little coin lock boxes that you could put change into as you walked down the street — the money went to organizations that fed and (temporarily) housed the homeless people. I think lots of cities could and should follow suit with that!

  9. I usually don’t give money directly for safety reasons and for not carrying money reasons. But if I’m near a CVS/7-11 etc, I’ll ask anyone who asks me what they want from inside. I also rarely make it all the way home with my leftovers.

    All the data points to directly giving people what they need (money, meds, housing, food) has far better results than giving to organizations that help people get what they need.

  10. I love that you bought that man an iced tea on a hot day. I’m with you — I know the stats on what happens to money given to panhandlers, and I’m not even talking about the scammers. Just the drug and alcohol numbers, when you intend to give the money to buy food. (Nevermind that it’s society’s own fault for defunding mental health care, so the drugs are really just people self-medicating.) And so we do give to the homeless services agencies. But sometimes you just see a human in need, and you have to act as a fellow human. I bought a Lunchable once for a guy asking for money outside a Rite Aid, and then we ended up talking for a half hour. He said I was the first person to make eye contact with him in weeks. He for sure had a hard life in so many ways, but knowing that most people don’t even treat him like a human being just broke my heart. So yeah, follow YOUR heart, and if you feel inspired to give someone something, do it without guilt!

  11. “In a world with people so consumed by themselves and things, I fear we’re losing sight of what really matters: each other.” So true! It’s always better to give than to receive. Giving is food for the soul. Let’s choose to do it often. 🙂

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