Friday, September 30, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice: Touched

I met a young man today, far worse off than I. A tall, dark-skinned chap who reluctantly disclosed that he was homeless. When I greeted him back he was overjoyed that someone would take the time to hear his spiel. I wasn’t one of the vagrants hustling the streets like him, but a workingman—one of those busybodies filing to and from work that usually don’t give him the time of day.

Often I have been that person: hurried and miffed that someone would try to wring another dollar from me. I have my own financial problems to deal with; you don’t see me skulking the streets and asking for a handout. And when one does fork over a buck or two, where does the money go? Booze? Drugs? Hopefully hunger gets the better of them first.

While I’d hate to think that I’m funding their addictions, I cannot entirely blame them for wanting to escape their plight. Besides, where did they come from? How did they become homeless? If I endured the same misfortune, would I also be tempted to drink my problems away? Most of us would never believe that we could become the person standing across from us, but didn’t we say the same thing about our parents when we were younger?

Though I typically resent the position that they put me in, today I felt different. I could see a bit of myself in the young man, even though he towered over me and wore the stench of the alley.

At first he had difficulty making eye contact, and when he did, I realized there was something else at play. I could sense his vision was poor; perhaps he was partially blind. I also noted some mental impairment while our conversation unfolded, further explaining why he seemed a bit distant.

He smiled briefly, showing me his vacant gums. Most likely his teeth had been knocked out, but it was hard to imagine that he wouldn’t yank them out himself if he needed a root canal.

“I was an athlete at AU,” he told me. Not one of the stars that made it to the Olympics or professional leagues, but one of the hopefuls who was good but not great, and now warming our streets.

From his physique, I could tell that he had been a track star, and perhaps even a basketball player. And the letters he blurted out meant something to me, not because I had gone to American University, but because it was the metro stop that I commuted to every morning. I had gotten an education and was now working near AU, while he had gotten an education at AU and had no hope of working, here or otherwise. With both of us staring down different ends of the same spectrum, I found the connection odd, especially since I had done track and field in high school, and could appreciate the steep level of competition at the collegiate level. For some reason I was supposed to talk to this gaunt, impoverished man, and the more I recognized his ailments, the more my heart warmed to him.

But let me clear about one thing: this isn’t a critique of American University or any other school featuring college athletes. As previously stated, I’ve never enrolled there, and believe that everyone must take responsibility for his or her own actions, especially in regard to education. Certainly he had a hand in his own demise; we all do. It’s not always clear how deeply we’re affected when we falter, and it’s important that we don’t use it as an excuse to give up.

For the first time in a long while I decided not to shy away from the problem, and took a good look at the burden he shouldered. At very least he was homeless, jobless, penniless and in need of a bath. In addition, he appeared to be in poor mental and physical health, had limited skills, and most importantly, did not have a family to turn to. Any of these problems can make life unbearable, but what if they hit you all at once? I don’t think I’d last long, either.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” He backed away as a bus pulled up.

“It’s ok,” I assured him. “That’s not my bus. It’ll be another 10 minutes before it comes around.”

“Bless you, sir.” He showed off what few teeth he had. I thought he was going to cry right then, but he held himself together well. “You’re going to have to give me a hug when I get done with you.”

“All right.” I was wary of the thought, but cracked a smile nonetheless. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

“This is for you.” He handed me a narrow strip of paper with the words ‘D.C. Lotto’ printed on it. Even though I don’t play the Powerball, I thanked him and took it anyways.

“And because you took the time to speak with me, I’m going to give you this as well.” He handed me a set of 10 pens.

Ironically he had no way of knowing that I’m a writer, or that I frequently run out of pens. “Thanks, I can use these. I’m a writer, at least that’s what I aspire to be.”

“Well how about that?” he grinned. “All I ask is that you make a donation. A few dollars…anything will do.”

It was hardly a surprise. I knew where this was leading all along, and appreciated that he was trying to be useful, and more importantly, feel useful. Without hesitation, I reached into my wallet. Typically I do not carry cash on me, not even a dime. “All I have is a twenty. Can you break a twenty?”

His eyes lit up, and I knew right then that I wouldn’t be seeing much back of it. “Sure, sure. I got fourteen right here. Is it ok if I give you back fourteen?”

“That’s fine.” I nodded.

“Oh, thanks man. And don’t think that I forgot about that hug.” He dug through his pockets, and handed over three crumpled bills and a pocketful of change, well short of $14. Again it was to be expected, and I could sense that he was having trouble counting. “My bad. I’m afraid it’s going to be a little less.”

“It’s ok, my friend. Put it to good use.” I straightened out the dollar bills, and put them in my wallet.

“You really touched me. No so much with the money, but with your words.” He finally scraped together enough courage to look me in the eyes. Before I could say anything, he embraced me, and then joined a female friend hidden among the scaffolding nearby.

Certainly my critics will admonish me for feeding the problem rather than addressing the underlying root causes; but if he weren’t genuinely in need, I wouldn’t have lent him an ear. In the end, the homeless man left me with more than I had begun with:

Words change people.

Your words.

As I peered down 14th street, waiting for the bus to arrive, the homeless man looped back around and handed me a second pack of pens. “Set the world on fire.” He patted me on the shoulder and walked away.

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