Yesterday morning I noticed a homeless guy sitting on a bench.  His duffel bag was cocked over the side of the arm rest and his head nearly fell in his lap as he slept his way through the passersby and loud engines.  As I approached him I was able to get a clearer picture of the frail old man.  His shoes were worn, although his jeans were fairly in tact.  Nothing but a sweatshirt protected him from the frigid weather, and his hands shriveled from the night before.  His hat seemed to keep him warm, but who really knows how long he’d been out in this weather and if the night was really so kind.  Right next to his duffel bag was a change jar, with a sign made out of cardboard “Need Food. Please help!”  And even though he wasn’t ‘working’ the change jar at the moment, something tells me that he won’t mind if it working for him until he awakes.

“Mommy look,” a young boy pointed as he and his mother made their way around the homeless man.  Careful not to get too close, the mother snatched her son’s hand, wrapped inside a cozy glove, and swiftly moved along.  When they passed, the young boy turned around and peeked his eyes above the hood of his coat to see if the old man had awakened.  It was at that moment, I realized that the woman’s aggressive response instilled a bit of fear in her son.  Unaware of what was happening, the old man continued to sleep.

Rather than continue walking, I made my way to a bench just opposite of the old man. I reached in my purse and pulled out my brand new BlackBerry.  I sat there for ten minutes pretending to pull e-mails from my company address.  In reality those ten minutes were spent quietly observing reactions of passersby.  Not that being homeless is unusual in Washington D.C., but rather taking the time to notice is quite rare.

At any rate, during my random observation I learned that the response of most people was inhumane.  The stares he received were cold, just like the weather and the temperatures he endured the night before.  A few people commented as they passed saying things like “he stinks,” or “I’m writing my local congressman.”  A few times I was certain that the old man was awake but rather too ashamed to raise his head.  So to avoid the blow of the stones he found solace in pretending he didn’t exist.  Afterall I guess he thought we felt the same – that he didn’t exist.

The cold wind began turning my bundled body to ice, so I got up from my spot and walked over to the old man’s jar.  I reached in my purse and pulled out the first bill I saw. The old man looked at me with helpless eyes and whispered “thank you ma’am” before I had the opportunity to put it in the welcome hole.  My heart stopped a bit as I remembered ridicule he’d endured in just the ten minutes I observed him. 

Something came over me and told me to put the $10 in his hand rather than the jar.  So I did.  He was taken back by the fact that someone would actually touch him rather than feed him money through a jar barrier. “Bless you,” he continued. This time he opened his mouth wide enough for me to notice that he was missing most of his teeth.  I didn’t want to speculate if it was due to a drug addiction or lack of healthcare, so I left it for what it was.

“No, bless you.” I say to him as I sit next to him on the bench. “I want you to grab something to eat with that money.”

“Yes ma’am.” He says. 

“Do you have family in the area? Anyone you can call?” I continue.

“No ma’am. I lost my house, my family, and my sanity all within a year.” He looked back at the ground and allowed the guilt to overpower him once more.

There was nothing I could do or say except, “There’s always a redemption period. Whenever you muster up the strength to allow yourself to go through that and move forward, call me and I’ll help you find a job.”

He nodded and I wasn’t sure if he took me seriously, but just in case he did I reached in my wallet and handed him my business card. I know it was a risky thing to do, but I felt it was the humane thing to do.  If I were Christian, I’d probably have asked, “What would Jesus do?”

I walked away from that meeting more touched by his situation than I was with my own.  I wasn’t certain if he’d call, but at least I may have given him hope.  In my eyes, that’s much better than cold stares and snide remarks. 

In today’s paper I read that a homeless man was found dead in the same area I met my friend yesterday.  I read the article repeatedly with a sunken heart.  I learned that he was the infamous James Tolson, former owner of Jay’s Tire Company a big name in NASCAR.   I learned that he sold his empire when he lost his wife and daughter in a house fire caused by a gas explosion, and that he gave all of his money to charities around the city before taking a few items and floating around the U.S.  He has one surving relative, an uncle in Philadelphia, who had unsuccessful attempts to find him after the incident.

I dropped the paper in disbelief.  “He gave up a life of luxury to find just a little bit of solace within himself,” I thought.  How could I be the one to judge him and think that he needed or would accept a job from me? Was I wrong?

This morning a young flirty couple replaced the old man on the bench.  My judgment and curiosity from yesterday was replaced with guilt.  How dare me. How dare the rest of the passersby?

– Written by Beatrice McClearn

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