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Selling Flowers by the Highway

[Religion News Service, March 19, 1996] 

 Six lanes go east and six go west, and they go and go; cars pause briefly for the row of stoplights swinging overhead, then plunge forward in a wave. In the midst of the highway is a narrow weedy strip of green, and standing on the strip are two men.

The man at the end closest to the intersection has hung his coat on a little tree. The stunted, leafless sapling shudders as the eighteen-wheelers roar by; the man looks a lot like the tree. His beard and hair are long and his eyes are dazed. His sign reads, "Homeless, will work for food." Not much work is available on a median strip, but it looks like the weathered man gets enough to eat, and drink, all the same.

A dozen yards away a man is working. A white plastic tub of water stands nearby, and it is filled with bundles of carnations, in bright and unlikely colors; when the traffic pauses the man ventures among the cars, a bouquet in each hand. Some people roll down their windows, and some of those hand over two dollars. The light turns green, and he hurries back to the median.

Two men are standing in the chill of a gray day, in the noise and stench of traffic, trying to make enough to get by. Work conditions are the same for both; income may well be, too. But one has gone to the trouble of shaving and dressing neatly, and making an early-morning trip to a flower wholesaler, risking a little capital in the process. Why? Why not take the easy way, and just ask for a handout?

As I sprint across traffic to the median, notebook in hand, the homeless man spots me and immediately grabs his coat and takes off in the opposite direction. The flower vendor sticks to his post. He is in his middle twenties, with curly black hair and a burnished complexion; his white shirt and blue jeans are tidy. Mahloud immigrated from Morocco not long ago.

I ask why he doesn’t just take it easy like the homeless guy, but the question strikes him as backward. Instead, he gropes to understand why anyone would want to live without working.

"I want to talk to him many things, but he is infirm," he says, gesturing toward the homeless man’s turf.  "When I talk to him, he walks away." Mahloud has to raise his voice to be heard over the constant roar of traffic. "Maybe homeless does not want to be honest person, because he lived a life which is a very, very bad life in his childhood. He is accustomed to easy life without work hard."

It’s an unfamiliar view of what constitutes a "bad life:" a childhood that is too easy. "You must teach the child when he is very, very baby," Mahloud explains. "It is a great problem in your life in America, that you cannot bear a mother or father to discipline a child. Government is against it. Some child need spanking, some don’t need. But I heard it said while I was still in primary school: ‘Because we did not spank him as a child, he cannot be a professor now.’"

Mahloud speaks with energy and intensity; he could be a professor. Standing out here each day in the noise and smog, he’s had lots of time to think. "I want to say something which is very important in spiritual," he tells me. "It is wrong to ask for money without work. Our religion is against this." (Mahloud is Muslim.) "There are some persons who want to give me money for no flowers. They account me homeless. But I tell them no. If you want to do that, give it to the homeless man there.

"You must know something very important in religion," he goes on. "When I am materialistic and far away from the spirit, I can do anything bad. I think only of here, not of fire or Paradise. I come to see only materialist life, and don’t think to God."

Why did you come to America? I ask.

Mahloud looks delighted. "This is a strong question! I prefer to come to America for a lot of reasons. First, it is very, very good, without a hard life." A truck thunders by, whipping dust and candy wrappers around our heads. "Second, I want to continue my studies" —he struggles for the English term— "in science economique. I have my baccalaureate already. I want to study more. I have been here one month, and I look for work, but I could not find it. I do this until I find better work."

A week later I go by to check on Mahloud. Apparently that better job showed up, because he is gone. More weeks pass. I never see Mahloud again.

The homeless guy is still there.

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