The Joy that Accompanies Empty Pockets

We walked up Tchoupitoulas Street towards the French Quarter in New Orleans. The sky? Blue cotton candy. The breeze? A cool sheet. The streets? Alive and beautiful and carefree.

We walked up Tchoupitoulas Street towards the French Quarter on that day between Good Friday and Easter and I noticed a man sitting with his back against a vacant building. Crumbling, hollow, condemned: both the man and the building. They seemed to hold each other up. They seemed to weigh each other down.

He nodded at me, right there on Tchoupitoulas Street, his politely parted lips revealing an inexplicable assortment of gold, silver, plaque, and empty spaces. For some reason the richness of his brown skin immediately made me wonder if he was a grandfather. My youngest daughter, if she would have sat on his lap, would have loved his skin. She would have pulled on it and pinched it and asked him why it was so brown, why it was so freckled. She would have asked him why his teeth were gold, or where the missing ones had gone.

But what did he see when he looked at me? Just another person walking by? A young man blessed with money and a nice family?

A rich young ruler?

I stopped, and New Orleans was quiet. My wife looked back over her shoulder. My four children stared at the man, wondered about him, wondered why I stopped. I never used to give money to people without homes, people without jobs, people without hope. “They’ll only use it for drugs or alcohol,” everyone used to tell me. Then I read something by CS Lewis:

Another things that annoys me is when people say, ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is, ‘But if I kept it, I should have probably drunk it.’

I reached into my pocket. A quarter. That’s all I had. Twenty-five cents.

“I’m sorry, man,” I said, plucking the quarter from my pocket and reaching towards him. “This is all I’ve got. I wish I had more.”

You would have thought I had given him a $100 bill.

“Bless you, brother,” he said through a smile verging on tears in a Louie Armstrong voice.

“Bless you, man,” I said, turning away, feeling a new weight of sadness, as if I carried that building away with me, on my own back.

* * * * *

We spent $40 at a place called Mother’s on an amazing lunch. Jambalaya. Red beans and rice. Shrimp. French Fries. Grits with melted butter. And for the kids, pancakes with butter and syrup. We usually have leftover food when we eat, but it was a late lunch, and we were hungry, and we ate every last bite. And we drank every glass of water at the table.

And it felt so good, being full, and strong, and breathing in the city.

* * * * *

We walked down Decatur Street in the late afternoon, leaving the French Quarter behind with its beauty and its voodoo and its narrow alleyways. The sun? Glaring and hot. The river? Brown and slow. The clouds? Huge and harmless.

We walked down Decatur Street then turned on to Port of New Orleans Place, a broad sidewalk that flows beside the river. Huge empty stages waited for open air concerts to inhabit them. Docks waited for boats to possess them.

Sitting on a bench was a small woman holding a baby. She held a cardboard sign that read, “My baby and me are homeless.”

Probably just a heist to make some money, I thought to myself.

We walked past and I held my breath the way I always do when I walk past someone like that, waiting for lightning to strike me. Then another thought.

What the hell is wrong with me?

By then I had six bucks in cash, so I turned around. Again. Always turning. Always stopping. When I walked toward her, her eyes opened wide, as if I was going to beat her for sitting there. Then, when she saw the bills, she jumped – it literally scared her – as if that was even more startling than the fact that I looked at her.

“Thank you, thank you,” she just kept saying over and over again. “Thank you, thank you.” And I had no reply. Not to her. Not to her child. So I turned my back on her thanks and walked away, shaken.

* * * * *

Along the river there are those huge binoculars that sit on small pedestals, the ones you have to pay 25 cents to use. The ones through which you can’t really see anything.

“Daddy, daddy, we want to look into those things!” my children cried out, their sandals slapping on the concrete as they ran and pushed and vaulted a small wall to get to the magic.

“Awww,” Cade complained. “It costs money. It costs 25 cents.”

I reached into my pocket, then I remembered where my last quarter had gone.

Oh, the joy that accompanies empty pockets.

* * * * *

The winners of Mark Hughes’ book, Sons of Grace, were Michelle Woodman, Donna Tallman, Andrea Ward, Ken Stewart, and Anne Bogel. Please email your mailing address to

22 Replies to “The Joy that Accompanies Empty Pockets”

  1. Shawn, over and over again, I am amazed not only at the way you capture life in words but also in the way you see – the beauty and honesty that filters your vision. Thank you for sharing that. Never stop. Never stop.

  2. I’ve always wondered where people see in the Bible that we’re only supposed to give money to those who are responsible with it. As if we’re any better (like you pointed out here with the C.S. Lewis quote). It’s almost like a modern-day Sermon on the Mount:

    You’ve heard it said, ‘Give wisely and be a good steward, making sure others don’t waste your money.’ But Jesus says, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)

  3. I remember my grandmother often saying that we’re not responsible fo what people do with the money we give, we’re just responsible for answering God’s call to give.

  4. I think I need more writers in my life who can help me dream of the stories of the people I pass by. Thanks for this.

  5. This is beautifully written and heart-wrenching Shawn. I like to tell people that if they are asking for money and choose to waste it that’s between them and God. If they ask for money and I refuse to give it, that’s between me and God. I don’t want it to be between me and God. I love this post.

  6. Beautifully written. Thank you for the graceful challenge to look beyond what we see into the unheard stories of those we pass everyday. God bless your empty pockets!

  7. I have no words, either — other than my own thanks. Thanks for sharing, thanks for showing me the joy of empty pockets.

    (Okay, so I had a few words!)

  8. Beautiful! What else can I say? You have perfectly captured the feeling of those whose souls quiver as they walk past the less fortunate of New Orleans.
    You also reminded me of a scripture, Mark 10:18 And Jesus said unto him, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.”
    In a study we were asked to consider this; every good deed we are prodded in our hearts to do is God working through us, for in us, there is no good. Every time we are inclined to stop and touch someone, with a word, a deed or a quarter, we become the hand of God working on earth. If one considers this when their heart is pricked to turn back and look, speak or assist, it makes it all the more difficult to continue walking.

    Again, I enjoyed your beautiful words.

  9. There is a saying in Italian, “Se non é vero, é ben trovato.” If it isn’t true, it’s a good story. In some ways, I think that’s how I live my life. Maybe they will go use it for something bad, but that would make it a bad story. We don’t really know the ending, so why don’t we dream of the good story? Why don’t we dream of the loving God full of grace and mercy for all? It’s too easy to dream of the bad story. Thank you for the challenge of a good story.

  10. This post shows how your travel and your writing and your inner life and loving family are all becoming woven together. I’m happy to recommend what you are doing with my friends and followers. Living in New York for a year gives me many opportunities to learn the same thing. Sometimes I give. Sometimes I have nothing. Sometimes I avert my eyes.

  11. You have captured an essential component of life in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana for the non-natives). There is a part of the city that either makes you compassionate or crass towards other people, especially those at the lowest point of their lives. Exquisite, thank you for sharing your passion.

  12. I’ve seen those with almost nothing give half of it to those who really did have nothing. It’s not a denying of self to share from our wealth. “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Aesop I was cleaning up after a job once when a pretty unkempt fellow came down the alley and in a soft voice offered to help me for a few dollars. I said I didn’t really need the help but I appreciated the offer. Reaching into my pocket I gave him the only bill I had. $5. It was pretty obvious he needed a drink. He cried and we hugged. He still had the dignity to offer me something in exchange and not just ask for something. I said..”You can do what you need to do with the money, right or wrong, just know God still loves you so I do too.” He walked away quietly with a soft thank you. I still think of him often… ’cause you see…I have been that man, and God still loved me too. Empty pockets are a gift.. to us.

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