Print Posted on 07/31/2017 in Doing Good

My Snuffbox Event

My Snuffbox Event

* by Joe Carp 

Cooper opens up with Rabbi Shlomo’s story of the snuffbox, which is essentially a tale that metaphorically represents not only the power of one’s actions, but the intent behind those actions and how the simplest of these choices could have the most significant of consequences. (This is something that Utilitarians, in the fashion of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, can easily relate to). 

“Everybody knows that holy beggars hold the world together,”—something I continue to contemplate.

I read the snuffbox story one January morning before venturing into Center City Philadelphia to meet a friend for brunch at Parc Restaurant just off Rittenhouse Square. I was walking towards the square and thinking that since I am quite early, I might have a look in the Barnes and Noble (being surrounded by books is always a past-time comfort for me).  On the way, I saw what looked like a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk—crying, holding a sign about somebody stealing his diabetes medications while asleep. 

I knew I would talk to him but I needed to rest a bit in the Barnes and Noble before doing so.  It was in the 30s and I was not wearing my winter coat, just a regular thick dress sweater and after walking for a long while, I needed to use the bathroom.  So, I went into the store and then after I did my business I walked around pondering how to do this.  It was too synchronistic…. reading ‘the snuffbox’ and seeing this homeless man who just looked in despair.  Well, I did not get any answers except: you know you just have to talk to him.

I left the store, went over to him and while he was still crying I got down on my knees and asked “what is wrong?” 

With his hands still cupped into his face, he tearfully started to tell his story as if he was too ashamed to look at the face of a well-intentioned stranger. Apparently, somebody stole his medications that he needs desperately needs to help manage his diabetes.  As he continued to speak, he stopped crying and was able to make contact and his voice became more calm. 

While he was telling me this story, a police officer came over and asked him if he was alright and the homeless man, whose name happens to be Joe, advised the police officer that everything is fine and we continued our conversation.  It is worth mentioning, that when I told him my name was Joe too, his face lit up and cracked a smile and gave a firm, warm handshake.  Joe mentioned after the officer departed that the officer got him a job as a dishwasher at the crab shack down the block; he requested Joe to work there on the night shift so he would not be out in the cold in the dark. 

Joe is doing pretty well and only needs a few more paychecks before he can get a room for rent; he told me he has a TD Bank account with $10 in it just to keep the account open.  The problem is that although he just got a job, he is still all the more vulnerable as the tiniest thing can set him back, such as what happened to him the night before.  It upset him so much that somebody would do that and that he is so close to attaining the shelter he desperately needs.  He had people spit on him, tell him to get a job…negativity that would make one more ashamed.  Nevertheless, Joe just smiled back, no matter how much the pain created the tumultuous whirlwind of emotions below.

Joe continued to speak of his past; after spending two and a half months in a hospital fighting throat cancer, he came home to his mother who died shortly after.  It was then that he discovered his mom had not made payments on the house and he was being evicted because he could not pay the $16,000 that was owed…he never imagined himself being in this position…no one does. 

I took out $40 (I was led to give that amount) which was to be slightly more than enough to make his co-pays for the medications and gave it to him and asked him if he could do me a favor—to forgive those who have treated him so poorly.  He glanced over and smiled and softly said with strong conviction something along the lines of, “I already have, it does me no good to hold that kind of resentment…I forgive them”.

As we continued to talk, a woman stopped, got down on her knees as I had done and said, “I just read your sign and saw you have diabetes, I guess you can’t drink hot chocolate, right”?  I noticed hot chocolate already in her hands.  Joe responded saying he better not, and the woman then asked if he would prefer coffee to keep him warm.  Joe looked down at the ground rather than looking at her face directly (reminiscent of adapting to the feelings of shame) and with a slight voice of apprehension and stutter said, “I — I think I’m ok, I have enough money now…I don’t really need it.” 

The woman responded, while making strong eye contact with him as I had, that it is no burden of hers to do him a small favor to keep him warm; it is not a question of what he needed, but a question of whether he felt deserving enough to receive the kindness from a stranger after experiencing its opposite from previous encounters.  He then realized that receiving is just as important as giving and replied ‘yes’ as she walked away. 

Joe and I continued to talk about various subjects including how the gentrification of Philadelphia is pushing a lot of people out of their homes that their families had for generations.  We talked about how he had a rough upbringing and how he got away from drugs and alcohol when he was 24. 

A short time later, the woman came back. She handed him a coffee and she took the hot chocolate she bought before, looked at me and said, “Here, this is for you”.  I graciously accepted as I was indeed cold sitting on the ground in the 30 degree weather.  She looked at both of us and bid us farewell and wanted us to continue our conversation—her eyes and mine met at the end of the sentence, and she continued on her day.

Joe and I spoke a little more and then it came time for me to depart.  I asked him if he would like a hug and he replied yes.  As we embraced, he said that really enjoyed our discussion and wished to remain in contact; I provided him with one of my email addresses and he said he will write once things start moving forward for him. 

As I was about to leave, a young woman came up and gave Joe some money…she said she tried to find some warm clothing at a nearby store and could not find what she was looking for so she gave him cash instead.  Utterly amazing, after all the negativity and lack of compassion Joe experienced, who would have thought that he would have been helped by 3 people within the span of a half hour.  I continued on my way to the restaurant. 

After I met my friend for brunch, we ended up walking towards where I have sat and talked to Joe…he was gone. 

Something within my DNA genetic coding unleashed during this interaction I had with Joe…something within my being changed.  It’s as if I blocked my willingness to connect to those on the streets and I finally made the choice to make the connection or as Isaac Luria would say, “I erased the mold and found the hidden gold; I allowed the presence of the sparks of the Divine.”

Ed. Note: The cycle kept going because, after Joe C. shared this story with a Pastor friend, that friend shared it with his church, and then with his Kabbalah class. Who knows what other ripple effects this short story has had and might still have?


*** Joe Carp is a spiritual seeker, a student of the Divine, and a talented Tarot card reader, among many other things. The story of the snuffbox appears in David Cooper’s classic, “God is a Verb”.


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