The Panhandler’s Box
by Matthew Joyce
Once there was a panhandler who sat on a street corner begging for spare change from passersby. Every day he sat on the curb with a ripped and tattered cardboard sign on which he had scrawled “Help. Please.”
He held out his sign to one and all, while at his feet lay a black bowler hat into which they might place a coin or a bill. If people were generous he was sometimes able to beg enough for a hearty meal within a few hours. But if people were stingy he might sit all day and receive almost nothing.
And so it went for the panhandler until one day a shiny white limousine pulled up to the intersection and stopped at the red light. Here’s my big chance, thought the panhandler. So he stood up and walked toward the limousine holding his sign in one hand and his empty hat in the other.
In the mirrored glass of the limousine windows he saw reflected his gaunt unshaven face. It was smudged and dirty with the grit of the street. Slowly the window rolled down and his reflection was replaced by the broad smiling face of a grey-haired man.
“Help me please,” begged the panhandler.
“And how may I do that?” asked the man in the limousine.
“Anything helps,” said the panhandler.
“Anything is rather vague. What is it you want?”
The panhandler thought of the quarters and dollar bills he usually received and hoped for something more. “How about ten dollars?” he said.
“Come now,” smiled the man. “When you came into this world you had aspirations and dreams. You must want more than that. What is it that you truly want?”
The question set the panhandler back, but he thought quickly because he knew the traffic light was going to change and the opportunity would be lost. “I want what you have,” he answered.
The answer made the man in the limousine smile. As the traffic light turned from red to green the man said, “I’ll be back tomorrow to grant your request.” Then with a wave of his hand the car pulled away and disappeared amidst the cars, taxis, and buses on the roadway.
I doubt it, thought the panhandler to himself. He was used to vague promises by strangers that went unfulfilled. So he shuffled back to the curb and resumed his regular position, hoping that someone might be more generous than the smiling man in the limousine.
For the rest of that day and much of the following morning the panhandler begged help from the strangers who passed him by. Many looked at him with scorn or averted their gaze and hurried on. Some took pity on him and spared their change. A few with no money to share gave him a smile instead. With so many passersby the panhandler’s thoughts of the man in the limousine soon faded away.
So he was very surprised when the gleaming white limousine returned. This time instead of rolling down the window the grey-haired man opened the door. “Hello,” he said as he stepped from the car.
“I didn’t think you’d come back,” admitted the panhandler.
“I recognized your plight and I want to help,” said the man who wore a pure white business suit. “I was once as you are now, begging for handouts and scarcely hoping for something more. Now I am a successful spiritual teacher and I want to give you a most special gift.”
“That would be great,” said the panhandler.
“This gift is so special that it will help you with all you desire,” said the man as he leaned into the backseat of the limousine to retrieve it.
“This is my lucky day,” thought the panhandler as his mind raced with images of bags of money, mansions, yachts, and private planes.
But the panhandler’s smile sagged in disbelief as the spiritual teacher emerged from backseat of the limousine. In his hands he held a wooden box. It was the size of a milk crate and it had a sturdy lid. The box was old and worn and covered in specks of paint that looked as though they’d flake off at the slightest touch.
The old man held the box with great reverence. “This was mine when I felt as you do. It was the key to unlocking all of my happiness, freedom, and success. I want you to have it that you may enjoy the very same.”
“Er, thanks,” mumbled the panhandler as the man gently placed the worn and battered box in his hands.
“Use it well,” said the spiritual teacher as he climbed back into the limousine.
With another smile and a wave of his hand the old man disappeared behind the mirrored glass. The panhandler returned the smile and the wave as the white limousine pulled away and merged into the steady flow of vehicles on the road.
The panhandler looked at the box in his hands. It was heavier than he expected and quite well made. Some gift, he thought. Maybe it will bring me good luck like it did for the old man. Even if it doesn’t at least I can sit on it instead of sitting on curb.
So the panhandler sat on the box and went back to begging. That day proved to be a very good day. He collected more money than he had in long time. He ate well that night and raised his glass in a toast to the spiritual teacher in the limousine.
But the next day proved dismal and the panhandler went hungry. Maybe this thing doesn’t work, he thought.
Fortunately the next day proved better and he regained hope. So the panhandler lugged the box to street corner the next day and the next. Day in and day out he carried the box to and from the curb as the pattern repeated itself. Some days he enjoyed prosperity and other times he went without.
And so it went for the panhandler, who sat year after year begging upon that special box until all the paint had flaked off and the lid was worn smooth from his sitting on it.
Finally the panhandler died. When he passed into the realms beyond this life he again met the spiritual teacher.
“I remember you,” said the teacher. “You’re the one I gave the box.”
“Yeah,” said the panhandler. “And I’m here to tell you that it didn’t work. I was a beggar before I met you and I was beggar afterwards. My life never changed.”
“How did you use the box?” asked the teacher.
“I sat on it,” answered the panhandler.
“Sat on it?” said the teacher. “Dear One, what you needed to do was to look inside.”
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