Magic City

Nighttime. It’s forty-seven degrees in Birmingham. I know this because James Spann says so. I’m pumping gas at a Shell station and eating Cheez-Its.

At the pump beside me, there is a minivan full of loud teenagers. It’s Friday night in Magic City, they are in a good mood. The minivan stereo is blaring dance music loud enough to crack commercial porcelain.

Meanwhile, there is an old man in a tattered tweed coat. His boots have duct tape on the toes. He wears a stocking cap, a long beard, and carries a rucksack. You can smell him as far away as Jackson County.

He approaches the young people.

“‘Scuse me, y’all…” his spiel begins.

And you can tell he’s used this speech several million times. He’s pared the language down to the bare essentials. He asks for money. He makes mention of God. He references military service. He swears he’s sober.

One of the young men stops the man mid-sentence. The young guy is tall, broad, and blonde like Freddie from “Scooby Doo.”

“Listen,” says Freddie. “I’m not giving you any money. Understand?”

He says it just like that. A real hard butt.

The oldster nods. “Yessir, thank you for your time,” he says.

Then, the old man hobbles away and approaches another car. This time he selects a woman in a skirt suit who is dressed as though she has come directly from work.

She is talking on a phone, pumping gas, even though warning labels on the pumps caution that doing these two things simultaneously could turn her into a skirt-suit kabob.

Her car is a black BMW, an M5 Sedan, which costs roughly the equivalent of a tactical grade military helicopter.

She makes eye contact with the old man but doesn’t lower the phone. “Yes? Can I help you?”

Manners, manners.

He stutters. “Yes’m. I’m… I’m pretty hungry, and I—”

He doesn’t get more than a few words out before she hacks him off at the knees.

“I don’t carry cash,” she says. “Sorry.”

I’m no expert, but she doesn’t look very sorry.

Next, the man approaches a guy pumping gas into a Dodge Ram. Truck Guy is wearing Italian-looking shoes and a puffer vest. His truck has an obligatory Browning sticker on the rear window, and his tire rims are very fancy.

The old man never even gets his first sentence past his lips.

“I can’t give you money,” says Truck Guy. “I don’t know what you’d spend it on.”

“No, sir,” says the old man. “I’m hungry, and—”

“Did you hear me?” Truck Guy says. “I said I can’t. I’m sorry.”

He sure is.

Eventually, the old man has given up. He is seated on the curb, arms folded, and he’s looking into the middle distance. I’ve never known hunger. But I’m pretty sure that’s the look I’d wear if I did.

I am about to approach the man and give him a twenty when someone beats me to it.

A young woman walks out of the convenience store. She is dressed in a Waffle House waitress uniform—blue shirt, yellow name tag, visor. She makes a beeline for the man and hands him a paper box of hot gas-station food, and a steaming Styrofoam cup.

She smiles at the man. Actually smiles. And he smiles his tooth back at her.

He’s not crying, but his voice sounds like he is.

“Oh, you didn’t have to do this, ma’am,” he’s saying between mouthfuls.

“Hush,” she says.

And I’m recalling what a homeless man once told me many years ago. The man said that to be homeless is to be invisible. Nobody sees you or touches you when you’re homeless, the man said. “It’s like you ain’t quite alive,” he explained, “but you ain’t quite dead, neither.”

The old man removes his stocking cap as the woman walks across a nearby parking lot and he shouts into the night air.

“God bless you, ma’am! God bless you so much!”

Took the words right out of my mouth.


  1. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - January 15, 2022 6:13 am

    I have trouble passing by someone who is hungry. I was a social worker and I know there are all kinds of people who ask for money. It is better to do what that sweet lady did, to buy him a hot meal. Remember that what we do for the least of these, we do unto Him.

  2. Fritz - January 15, 2022 6:26 am

    “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35

  3. suzi - January 15, 2022 6:54 am

    Thank you Waffle House lady for proving there is still some humanity left in this world.

  4. lynspirationgmailcom - January 15, 2022 8:32 am

    After having served in pastoral care at a local homeless shelter, and now as a hospital chaplain, I’ve visited with too many unhoused people to keep track of. They’re sadly accustomed to being overlooked, avoided, and/or mistreated. I know this much: there are as many reasons for homelessness as there are humans without four walls and a roof over their heads. I’m neither qualified nor wise enough to rightly pass judgment on the many causes and reasons for their homeless state. God knows I can’t always discern if someone’s need is legitimate, but that’s not my job. It’s between God and the needy person in my path to settle. However, God will gold me accountable for my response to the perceived need. Jesus says that whatever I do to the least of these I do to him. I will always err on the side of extending mercy and grace, and leave the judging up to the only One who’s fit for the job. Thanks for bringing one of the least of these to the center of our collective attention, Sean, if only long enough to force us to bear witness to one homeless guy’s humanity. He matters to his Maker, which is enough reason for me.

    • Rose Eliff - January 15, 2022 10:49 pm

      I feel the same way about just doing my part and leaving the rest to God and the person. I volunteered at a soup kitchen every Saturday for 12 years and learned, as you said, that each person has their own story. I made it a point to see each person, to look in their eyes, to listen with my full attention and respect. Matthew 25 has long guided my heart. And I believe that sometimes we entertain angels unawares.

  5. Steve McCaleb - January 15, 2022 8:55 am

    There’s a million reasons not to give money to panhandlers……and only one to help them. It’s what the Lion of the tribe of Judah would have us do. There but for the grace of a merciful God goes every one of us. Waffle House Lady just got a star added to her waiting crown. And I bet it’s not the only one either. Thank you Lord for showing us that there are still kind, caring people out there doing your work in the middle of this mess we call a world.

  6. Lucinda - January 15, 2022 10:09 am

    In these days of debt and credit cards I really never have cash. Think I’ll try to hide a little just for the person God might send my way. Thanks Sean

  7. Jimmy Stewart - January 15, 2022 10:14 am

    Jesus said of the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the incarcerated, the stranger…As often as you have done “IT” (fed them, clothed them, given them drink and clothes, visited them in prison or the hospital and welcomed them into your world) for the least of these my brothers, you have done it for me! Matthew 25

  8. Larry McEntire - January 15, 2022 11:55 am


  9. Missus Mux - January 15, 2022 12:00 pm

    God bless Waffle House lady who wisely provided food rather than cash. Gift cards for local convenience store, coffee, fast food places are great to have on hand to give. Also remember local food pantries and organizations that serve meals is another way to help the hungry, poor and/or homeless. Our area serves 3 meals a day for anyone who shows up. But some choose to stand at intersections asking for money, while they have a decent car parked nearby. They make more money panhandling than by working jobs. Some refuse to take food, only your money. Be kind but be wise.

    • Alabama John - January 15, 2022 3:47 pm

      WE have that here too. One lady gets all dressed up like she is poor and needy and goes to a lot of gas stations and says her car ran out of gas and she needs gas money. When she gets all she can, she then gets in a SUV better than mine or most there and drives to the next station.
      Giving food and clothes is best.

  10. joan moore - January 15, 2022 12:30 pm

    Love one another, Bear one another’s burdens; these are not optional. I pray for God to be with those who need help and with those who don’t understand.

  11. Paul McCutchen - January 15, 2022 12:44 pm

    I was in a Waffle house early one morning in North West Arkansas. I man walked in and asked for something to eat and the guys on the barstools pointed at the booth in the corner. The man was fed steak and eggs, waffles and anything else he could eat and drink. When he got ready to leave the young lady brought him a cup of coffee to go. I saw her pointing to the men on the stools and as he approached them he asked if they knew of a job. They said they had a few days work if he was interested and he said yes. I asked the young lady about the men and she told me they worked construction in the area and ate breakfast there most mornings. They always have odd jobs to do for a few days but sometimes, like the man who paid for his meal, they will give you full time employment. There are always angles looking around.

  12. Donna George-Moskovitz - January 15, 2022 12:55 pm

    Made me cry. Made me rethink some things.

  13. Ali Vin - January 15, 2022 1:03 pm

    So sad in our blessed country that they are people in need. But there are also people that take advantage of the kind hearted. In our area we know which ones have the nice cars parked around the corner.

  14. Karen - January 15, 2022 1:06 pm

    Thank goodness for the people like this young lady.

  15. Tammy S. - January 15, 2022 1:38 pm

    James 1:17… “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

    Everything we have comes from God. We are to live by His example, and He is a giver. We are to have wisdom, yes, but we are called to help one another, bear one another’s burdens, to give when much has been given to us, and to be kind to one another, tender hearted even. A smile cost us nothing, and for so many of us a cold bottled Coke, a service station hot dog, pack of peanut butter crackers and maybe even some cash in that food bag will not even match the Starbucks latte and meal we will have later on. Because the truth is, and when you live in this principal, you just know, “You cannot out give God!!” This does not just mean in the financial sense even, but in kindness, goodness, faithfulness, peace, joy, patience, gentleness, self-control and the greatest…love. Just love people.

    Also, in all truthfulness, I have been every person in this scenario, except the homeless man. And I know not only which one “feels” right but which one we are called and commanded to be like. I wanna be like God, and the Waffle House waitress.

  16. "Tree J" - January 15, 2022 1:57 pm

    I carry protein snacks with me. I feel better giving food directly. I don’t wanna help an addiction get it’s next fix. I do wanna help suffering souls survive…

  17. KC - January 15, 2022 2:12 pm

    God bless him and the waitress! My mom would have done the same. She would have been 103 today. Happy birthday mom, you and the waitress have it right.

  18. Jan - January 15, 2022 2:24 pm

    Love this one … makes my heart sing to picture him eating warm food and her kindness!

  19. Shelton A. - January 15, 2022 2:36 pm

    I recall Jesus saying something like, as you do for the least of these, so you have done for me. I try to give the homeless a few bucks whenever I can. I fed a homeless man a few weeks ago and he hugged the stuffing out of me. I mentioned COVID and he said God comes first. I didn’t get sick and my ribs are healing (lol). Doing the right thing just makes you feel good. That’s good enough for me.

  20. Jeanette - January 15, 2022 2:59 pm

    I am in agreement with everything that has been said here. I also hope that Mrs BMW, young Mr Strongstuff, and Mr Martha saw this unfold as well.

  21. Bobby - January 15, 2022 3:05 pm

    I had a similar experience recently. Who are we to judge.

  22. Sarah - January 15, 2022 3:12 pm

    I remember my pastor once said to always “error on the side of the gospel.” Always do the loving thing. Assume the best, not the worst in someone.

  23. Ruth Mitchell - January 15, 2022 3:56 pm

    “There but for the Grace of God go I,” John Bradford. One of the first lessons my first grade teacher taught was the Golden Rule, and I’ll never forget how she encouraged us to live by it. She even gave us a 12 inch ruler with the words written on it. I can’t claim to say I’ve always followed it, but I’m often reminded and try harder to practice “doing unto others as I would have them do unto me.” Miss Waffle House must have the giver of one of those wooden rulers somewhere in her past. Blessings on her!

  24. Patricia Gibson - January 15, 2022 3:57 pm

    A true Christian attitude ❤️ God bless this woman. It isn’t our job to figure out what the money will be spent on. God says help the needy. Food is better or gift cards to fast food restaurants or better yet take them to eat. Most importantly follow your Holy Spirit You will be guided.

  25. Marcia Enquist - January 15, 2022 4:08 pm

    I have joined a group at my church who feed the homeless and give them clothing and toiletries. I’ve never had such joy as the grateful smiles and “God Bless Yous” as I get from these wonderful folks! Thanks for this❤️

  26. Kathy Coxwell - January 15, 2022 5:13 pm

    God bless that waitress! I’ve always been told not to give money to strangers, but to give food instead. She was an Angel unawares!

  27. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - January 15, 2022 5:44 pm

    Absolutely no way I’m not going to give him something. A few bucks at the very least.

  28. Sandy - January 15, 2022 6:06 pm

    If you’ve never been in those shoes you need to stop and thank the Good Lord. Especially the lady in the nice car and the guy with the big pickup truck.

    God bless the waitress , God bless her.

  29. Linda Moon - January 15, 2022 6:20 pm

    God blessed the ma’am and the old homeless man, too. My Guy and I have been blessed to feed the hungry when they need a meal, and the homeless guys or gals have always shown gratitude for food. One of my younger guys identifies both compassionately and literally WITH the homeless at times. They’re not invisible to him. God Bless You, Sean!

  30. MAM - January 15, 2022 7:04 pm

    A reminder that we too could someday be in those taped up shoes. I give food, if I have it handy. I like the idea of carrying protein bars to share.

  31. Cynthia Russell - January 15, 2022 9:15 pm

    I pray for God to bless me with God Eyes so I may see the heart of people like He does.. not judge them.. just love them.. That’s all I am called to do.. & if by chance I have money to give them.. I do .. because I am blessed with SO MUCH!!!

  32. cwisecousin - January 15, 2022 9:32 pm

    Awesome! What a wonderful spirit this woman has. Thanks for telling this story, Sean, and God bless you, too.

  33. Karen - January 15, 2022 10:45 pm

    Those with the least are the ones that help. We know what it’s like to be without. Thanks to the Waffle House lady. BMW and cowboy don’t know need. The teenagers do not know it yet either.

  34. Stacey Wallace - January 15, 2022 11:39 pm

    Some people are so rude. May God bless that sweet young woman for being compassionate. Thanks, Sean.

  35. Julie P, RN - January 16, 2022 12:13 am

    Error on the side of the Gospel…I love that! There, but for the Grace of God, go any one of us…

  36. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - January 16, 2022 2:20 am

  37. Tim Smith - January 16, 2022 11:06 am

    Sean, I read your post before leaving for an event my church hosts occasionally to give away soup and clothing. George was in the parking lot when I got there. He asked if we had any sleeping bags to give away. I told him I didn’t think so but asked if he could come back around noon. I went out and bought him a sleeping bag. I probably wouldn’t have had I not read your post. Thanks—from me and George.

    • Bonnie Vandercook - January 16, 2022 6:45 pm

      I lived in Portland Oregon in the 1950s and 60s. My dear mother would listen and give to just about any person who walked passed her. I know that our house was “marked” by what the neighborhood called bums. They would knock at our door asking for food. My mother would strike up a bargain. “You rake leaves”, she would ask. “Yes ma’am”, they would answer. She would make sure we stayed behind the screen porch door as she proceeded to make them bacon and eggs. They left well fed, and we had a pile of leaves to jump in.

  38. Chasity Davis Ritter - January 17, 2022 12:25 am

    That is one draw back of a plastic society. People don’t carry cash. But these folks you mentioned don’t sound like they would have handed any over if they did. I always think about the kiddos outside my work door selling Girl Scout cookies. No one has cash but they take plastic now anyway with the square and you almost need credit to afford it if you buy more than one box anyway. But I think of the words in the good book. Many have entertained angels without even knowing it and what you do for the least of my brethren you do for me. I’m glad you see people,Sean, and I’m thankful for ladies like the Waffle House girl. God bless all 3 of your souls.

  39. Margaret Jackson - January 17, 2022 3:01 pm

    This is the modern day version of the Good Samaratian. Or the poor woman who gave her only alm at the synagogue.
    The one person who probably had the least, who could probably leads afford to give, was the only one who cared.
    (Other than you!!!)

    People do not realize that angels walk among us.

  40. Patricia Vincent - January 19, 2022 12:58 pm

    my mom always had them sit on the stoop and she would fix them something to eat.Or she would pay Woolworths counter to give them something but she NEVER gave them money!!Smart lady!!and a kind soul!!

  41. Nancy M - January 22, 2022 1:38 am

    Bless all the people who ask themselves “what would Jesus do” and do that!
    I like your drawing of Vulcan, looks just like him! I lived in B’ham for 35 years, and yes, if James Spann says it, it’s so or will be. You can predict the weather by his wardrobe: if he’s wearing coat and tie, all is well. When he takes off the coat, watch out. When the tie is loosened and shirt sleeves are rolled up, take cover!


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