an early christmas gift

Last night I drove to the drug store to refill a prescription. As I rushed out of the pharmacy, anxious to get home because my favorite show was about to start, I noticed a man standing to the side of the door. He was wearing a hoodie, doing what I call the “winter hunch”—that hunched-over look people in the north have when they are trying to stave off the cold—and at his feet were two small pieces of luggage. As I pulled out of the lot, something compelled me to turn back. There are many homeless in Baltimore, yet something about his demeanor struck me. Seeing him gave you the feeling you get when watching someone who’s really uncomfortable in his own skin… and who feels like he doesn’t belong and who’s almost trying to make himself invisible. I’ve felt this way myself at times throughout my own life, which is probably why I recognized it in him.

I was nervous about going back. I mean, what if he wasn’t really homeless, and what if I insulted him by asking if he would like a meal or a cup of coffee? What if he was a heroin addict or a schizophrenic—could he possibly hurt or rob me? All these thoughts raced through my mind as I turned the car around.

By the time I had parked again, he was walking towards the main road. I felt a wave of relief wash over me, thinking, maybe he did have somewhere to go! Or maybe someone was coming to pick him up! But I knew that was just my fear talking. . .  it was pretty clear he had nowhere to go.

I grabbed my credit card and followed him to the street, stopping him and asking if I could buy him dinner. He said no initially, and I could see his mind racing, probably thinking, who is this crazy white woman, and why is she asking to buy me dinner? But he eventually agreed.

He ordered a hamburger sub. No mayo. We waited. The guy behind the counter was eying us curiously—I imagine we probably did look a little odd standing there together. I tried to make some small talk while we waited, but was a little lost because my normal stand bys just didn’t work. Where do you live? What do you do for a living? Do you have a family? What do you do in your spare time? all felt wildly inappropriate.

I asked if he wanted company while he ate. He said he did, so we sat down and I watched while he salted his burger and sipped the Sprite he’d ordered, seeming to truly relish the taste.

His name is John, I discovered. From Detroit originally, he moved to Maryland when he was just 12, after both his parents had died. As he ate, I found a few “safe” subjects: sports and music. Turns out he’s a huge hockey fan (Red Wings, of course), and he loves jazz, too. He talked about wanting to turn a corner with his life. And about how difficult life on the streets—three years now and counting—has been. There were awkward moments of silence at times, and at others, I felt he wanted to talk more, but I was afraid to ask the hard questions, such as  how did he get into this situation? Is he trying to get off the streets? Why didn’t he live with his children?

He ate the sandwich very slowly, which I now realize was probably to extend his stay inside in the warmth. And at one point during our time together, he motioned towards the sandwich and said quietly, “this is really a wonderful Christmas present. . .  I’m so grateful.” And I could see he really meant it. It took everything in me not to burst into tears at that moment. Tears of sadness for this man sitting across from me, who truly felt that these two pieces of bread and a small slice of overcooked meat were a gift. And tears of gratitude for all that I have, and that I so often take for granted.

As I was leaving, I asked if I could give him a hug, and he smiled broadly, nodding yes. And we stood there hugging each other hard for about a minute or so. [I'm sure the guy behind the counter in the restaurant was really curious at that point!]

I felt so terrible pulling away in my car, knowing that I was heading home to my warm bed while he was heading to another uncertain, cold night on the streets. But I was grateful for this moment and for the gifts that this homeless man named John gave to me: a wonderful hug and some much-needed perspective.