It was almost 6pm and my jaunt carried the kind of energy that steps taking you away from a long day and week at work and towards home and the weekend can’t help but possess. The sky, though perpetually overcast, was still relatively light — probably due to the beginnings of flurry that was falling and turning a glowing gray the expanse that filled in the empty space in between rooftops and highrises in the distance. It was cold enough to cause me to withdraw my earmuffs from my pocket as I strode along.
“Excuse me miss, excuse me –” the words came from beyond my peripherals and I slowed. He was short, with a young face. A red sports flatbrim made his head seem much bigger than it really was. His jacket was dark and looked like a flannel print you’d see a logger wear. He pulled a short stocky woman along by the hand as they crossed the road in between frustrated drivers and I heard him mutter an admonition to the woman he had in tow as they approached.
His spiel erupted, as well-oiled and formulated as any business pitch: short, confidently spoken, and discrediting any reasons for refusal before I had time to formulate them. It came complete with a perfectly executed welling of tears that wet his eyes but did not escape to slide down his chestnut face. Five or six sentences in, the request for “some spare change” to buy food and train tickets came.
“I’m not going to give you money,” I replied. “But I will buy you food.” My refusal to hand him monetary resources was met with an instantaneous bristle — his eyes hardened and his posture became hostile in that barely definable but unmistakably perceptible change more deeply rooted than any linguistic or cultural difference could skew. Even the quality of his voice was more abrasive without the pleading honey with which it had dripped just a moment before as he, in an exasperated tone, pointed back the way from which they had come and dictated a budget chinese takeout. He struck out across the street again, still dragging the woman along behind him whose vacant but not unengaged expression hadn’t yet faltered. He didn’t even wait to see if I followed. I smiled to myself, a mixture of interest and chagrin, and set out after them.
As we rounded the corner of the strip mall, a weathered old man leaning against the wall called loudly for alms, sparing any pretense except to announce his homeless state. The man I followed held a few singles in his hand which I had seen a woman in a car hand out her window just before he had approached me. Sparing barely a glance for the old man, he stuffed the dollars into the wrinkled outstretched hand as we passed. The old man’s elated cackling followed us into the chinese joint.
We marched to the counter and the woman, speaking for the first time, began to ask the young cashier behind the counter for a “number E” after glancing up at the glowing antiquated menu on the wall. However, the young man stopped her at once, leaning close into her face and asking her to let him take care of it. She quieted instantly and the young man proceeded to order a smaller dish. “She can have whatever she wants,” I told him, and the woman, after considering me with wide watery eyes, requested her number E once more. He assured me that he was trying to respect my wallet but after I told him it was alright, he added a couple drinks to the order and I paid. We were given a number and the woman wandered over to an empty table to take a seat.
And then the encounter deepened. The transactional terms under which he seemed to be acting – as if we were conducting a business deal exchanging sustenance for philanthropic satisfaction – gave way to a person-to-person engagement. Our ensuing conversation lasted only a few minutes. He asked me how old I was. I told him. He said he was 35, much older than I would have guessed. I asked him about his story. He had been divorced after having three children and the courts left him with almost nothing. He ended up on the street, traveling around with a woman he had met at the shelter where he stayed because he was trying to look after her. He wants to go back to school for accounting or sales, because he “was good at talking to people.” He asked me for a way to keep in contact. I told him he’d see me around and that I wasn’t going to give him my number, but did eventually give him my name written down on the takeout receipt to look me up on facebook if he so desired. He asked to pray with me. So at about ten after six on a Friday night, I stood in the middle of a bustling chinese takeout restaurant praying out loud with a homeless fellow I hadn’t known from Adam fifteen minutes previous. After we prayed, I left them with the takeout number and took my leave, considering the wealth of perspective I had just gained. Every person you see has dreams, wants, fears, a past, and a future. Take the opportunity to hear them sometime. You’ll be glad you did.