I saw him out the corner of my eye as I swiped my credit card payment for my parking spot. He was large and lumbering and for an instant I had to decide whether to move away or stay planted for the con.
After four long years of consulting work, I was back to regularly driving to an office in a major city. All of the inconveniences that came with the commute were rushing back. Today I gave in to using a parking lot instead of street parking. I had a growing work load and was under the weather too. While the $17 fee was painful, I made a mental note to make sure I commuted with my husband for the rest of the week.
Even more frustrating than the fee was the not so attractive realities of an old city landscape in the heat of summer. The smells, the tourists, and yes, the homeless. I had forgotten how numerous the lost souls of the city had become. My last trip required a nervous rush to my car, as a dirty-bearded gent decided to express his pleasure with my womanly figure. I couldn’t start the car fast enough to leave the beggars and hustlers behind and cruise back to my leafy-green suburban existence.
Now, as I opened my purse to return my credit card, it became immediately clear that I could not appease this approaching giant: I was not carrying cash. I wasn’t particularly frightened, as the mid-morning sun was climbing and there was activity from school groups and late arriving restaurant workers in every direction. I was acutely aware of the advice to not give money to anyone, particularly from an opened purse. But my two-decades commuting into the city, as well as my sensitivity toward freezing people on sidewalks, sometimes compelled me to pull strategically placed cash from a pocket. Not today.
“Excuse me miss,” the dark-skinned, disheveled man interrupted. “I haven’t eaten in some time and I was wondering. . .”
He was a husky form, clearly carrying an invisible weight, hunched forward and shuffling. His athletic shoes were worn and his dark polo shirt and jeans had not been washed in some time. His face was moist and his hair matted short – but clearly hadn’t enjoyed a recent cut. He carried nothing and his hands were open, out stretched and pleading, desperate for some relief. He was sober and clear-spoken.
I was just catching the receipt to leave on my car and as I grabbed the slip I apologized sincerely for my inability to relieve his pain.
“I’m sorry. I rarely carry cash,” I said.
Ordinarily that would be enough and I would instinctively turn toward my day with a mental note to help another soul in the future. But something stopped me from turning my back on him. I don’t know if it was his kind eyes or his manners, but instead of dismissing him to the streets, I invited conversation.
“I’m truly sorry,” I said. “I am around here sometimes. Are you usually in this area? I can help you another time.”
He hesitated, yet I saw a flash of gratitude light his face.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied. “I am around here often.”
“If I see you I’ll help you another time.”
And just that quickly the man lumbered away and I turned to take the short walk to my vehicle where my briefcase and laptop were waiting. It was at that moment that I realized I was carrying a wad of cash in my case. I had collected some payment from my son’s friends to cover senior week expenses and had planned to deposit it later in the day. I felt an invisible, unexplained pull to help this man after all.
I carefully glanced around me and protected by the open car door, laid my wallet on the floor. Then I covertly reached into my briefcase for the banded wad of cash. I pulled out a $20 and quickly shut and locked the door, leaving my luggage behind.
I crossed the lot and scanned the area. The man was not immediately visible, but I decided to walk further toward the other end of the lot and see if I could track him. At that moment I realized he was sitting on a chair in front of a locked restaurant across the street. He was again hunched in a tired pose breathing irregularly. His dark clothing and skin melted into the iron chair and on this shaded block he looked like a sculpted monument to the downtrodden. At that moment he caught sight of me crossing the street and gave me a confused look as I approached.
His hand held a lighter but he had no packages or bags or cigarettes to speak of. He had no discernable bad odor, but clearly was wearing clothing and sweat for an extended period.
“I remembered I had some money in my car,” I explained and handed him the crisp twenty -dollar bill. He gently took the gift and incredulously looked down at the paper in his enormous hand.
“Oh, thank you miss!” he exclaimed, “thank you!”
Moved by his sincere gratitude I found myself inquiring about his well-being.
“Now go get something to eat,” I said. “But eat before cigarettes (I caught a whiff of old cigarettes from his hair). What is your name?” The man, still seated in the shade, looked up at my standing figure and his watery yellowed eyes met mine. He gave me his name and asked me in turn.
“Thank you miss Lisa. It’s been days since someone has been kind to me. And I so appreciate you.” Hearing my name leave his lips was a revelation.
“Do you go somewhere besides the streets?” I asked. I did not know what had gotten into me at this moment, but I sincerely wanted to know that this vulnerable, grateful man was cared for.
“Yes. I hope to see my daughter in Atlanta in August. My wife died. Of ovarian cancer. And I got depressed. I’m depressed. And things happened and I lost my house. . .”
His voice trailed and the tears came and squeezed from his jet eyes over his fleshy sweaty cheeks. I watched a tear drop onto his bare arm as he continued to speak.
“I was so hungry and no one was talking to me. Thank you, Miss Lisa.”
“You are welcome,” I said, and I instinctively touched his shoulder. The tears came harder now.
“Thank you for talking to me,” he whispered.
I felt the lump in my throat and quietly bid him farewell. And like a prayer I wished him to take care.
“I hope you get to Atlanta,” I said. And then turned to cross the street. When I was safely in the parking lot, I glanced back and watched him shuffle back up the block toward the main thoroughfare of markets that could offer him a meal and a pack of smokes for the day.
No matter our reality, we are all members of this family of beings. We are all capable of breathtaking benevolence or soul crushing harm. Regardless of our position, place, home, or race, we inherit the commonalities of humanness. It is the one certainty we have: we are born into our common humanity and it is ours.
The most egregious harm we can do is to rob another’s humanity. Yet it is the weapon of choice, either deliberately or unintentionally, that demeans us and lays the framework for the most painful and crushing outcomes imaginable. If we take away a person’s humanness, or forget ours, we are nothing.
Today I shared in a common humanity with a man who wandered my way. I don’t know if this man was truly homeless. I don’t know his full story or whether he used that $20 to smoke or buy beer. It really doesn’t matter. Because what I realized was that what I gave him today was worth more than any money could buy. I gave him time and acknowledgement of his suffering. I recognized his humanity –and he mine.