Charity may begin at home, but it ends with neighbor

Laurence Sewell /


I live in a lovely Bend neighborhood. The houses are handsome and the yards are tidy. We aren’t generally exposed to the “other side” of Bend unless we happen to be out shopping and drive by a panhandler or see somebody pushing a shopping cart.

Even when that happens, it’s pretty easy to look the other way and focus on more pleasant matters as we escape to our leafy retreats.

We like to humor ourselves that we are good and generous people, but that feeling of comfortable generosity may not be so obvious when those from the “other side” put their desperation on display in our neighborhoods.

Let me explain.

A couple of months ago, I walked out of my garage to witness an older lady, who I will call “Alice,” in my alley rummaging through my trash can. I didn’t feel threatened at all, but I was touched by witnessing a 70-something woman being reduced to that level of subsistence and asked her if I could help her.

She explained that she collected cans and bottles and used them to buy groceries, cheerfully claiming that it was honest work and she wasn’t breaking any laws.

I told her not to bother with the trash can and that I had a couple of bags of cans and bottles I was saving to give to the Bethlehem Inn but, instead, she could have them.

I gave her the two bags and, after a few minutes of small talk, she went back to her work. I mentioned her to my next-door neighbor, who commented that she comes through the alley every recycling day. We left it at that.

Recently, as I drove into the far end of the alley, I saw Alice going through a neighbor’s trash can. I greeted her and told her to come back to my garage, as I had a few bags for her.

A few minutes later, as I walked out of my garage with my teenage daughter and her friend, Alice drove up in her battered van. She was in tears, clearly upset, and said that a lady at the end of the alley had written down her name and license number and was calling the police.

I expressed sympathy, handed her some bags of cans, and then saw my neighbor approaching. I could see that she was itching for a confrontation, so I sent Alice away. My neighbor’s arm was extended and her shaking finger was pointed at me in an accusatory manner. She was as angry as Alice was upset.

“Did you invite her into this neighborhood?” she demanded.

“No, but I felt sorry for her and asked her to come back to my house for some cans and bottles.”

My neighbor then launched into a tirade about Alice, saying that she had chased her off before, that Alice was trespassing and that she (my neighbor) must protect her children (from what, I wasn’t really sure).

When I tried to explain that Alice uses the cans and bottles to buy groceries, this woman dismissed that with, “There are other ways (subtext: Do what you have to do, but don’t do it in my neighborhood)!”

Any appeal to my neighbor’s sense of compassion fell on deaf ears. She was still shaking with rage when she finally left, clearly dissatisfied with me.

It was embarrassing that such a scene would be played out in front of my daughter and her friend, and it was so utterly unnecessary.

As I climbed in the car, I thought “What a pity! How a little sympathy would have turned the whole ugly scene on its tail.”

I only hope that my neighbor and I will never have to be subjected to such humiliation in our advanced years as Alice was that day.

— Laurence Sewell lives in Bend.