We were running late. I needed to get the family fed and my daughter to dance, plus I still had a laundry list of things I needed to finish for work that night. Typically, Monday nights are our take-out nights because: Monday. But on this particular night, something happened to me. Something that has been ringing in my heart for days. Something that profoundly moved me. Something that I feel I need to share.
I live in what has been deemed by Oprah, "The happiest city in America." It truly is a happy place, full of happy people -- and I'm one of them. Maybe we earned this title because of our college town feel, or the gorgeous beaches, or that we're encircled with wine country and rolling ranches of oak trees and blue skies. Or maybe it's our relaxed California vibe, or simply the temperate climate that gives our town such appeal. This climate, not only draws tourists from all over the world, it also draws a pretty large population of homeless people to our area.
If you spend any time walking the streets of our town, you're sure to meet a good many panhandlers asking for money, asking for booze or asking for drugs. Many of these people are deeply troubled, addicted and/or mentally ill. You'll witness people screaming at the top of their lungs to the invisible ghosts that haunt them. You'll hear profanity, threats and just plain-ol'-weirdness coming out of the mouths of people sitting next to their dogs, parked on the sidewalk with cardboard signs. They might yell at you, they might yell at your kids. They might flip you off. You never know. We have so many, in fact, that our city has set up "Make Change Count" meters specifically designated for donating to the homeless, asking passersby not to give money to panhandlers but rather to donate through these meters to the homeless shelters.
So this is the part where I confess to something horrible: most of the time I'm blind to these people. They've been a fixture of this town for my entire life and my callous has grown thicker over time. As I walk downtown with my family, we navigate around anyone that seems to want to cause a disturbance. I steer clear of people that look threatening. I'm on the defense, ready to say no, ready to step out of the way, ready to cross the street. Blindly plowing forward into my to-do list.
So back to Monday night... I parked my car to go pick up our take-out dinner (Chipotle if you'd like to know) and noticed a man with a cardboard sign near McDonalds (about 50 yards away). The fact that I noticed him was odd. Maybe it was because Isabelle wanted to stay in the car, and by instinct I took a look at my surroundings, saw him, and told her to lock the car and keep her cell phone close if she needed me. The weird thing was that I not only saw him, but I that I noticed him. And for whatever reason, I decided that I should give him some money. It was a passing thought that surprised me. I thought, "Maybe I'm evolving. Maybe it's all this yoga you do. Maybe you're heart is opening a little more." I patted myself on the back for being such a good human to even think the thought of helping him (I told you: confessional). And then I quickly forgot about my newly enlightened state when I saw that 462 people were in line at Chipotle. (I might be exaggerating a tad on this number.)
As I waited to pick up dinner, I texted with Isabelle back and forth letting her know the snail's pace of the line. Telling her to hang on and that her food should be ready before breakfast. You know, just silly stuff to pass the time. Finally, I ordered my food, paid and headed back to the parking lot.
This is where it gets weird: I remembered the homeless man. I realize that saying this out loud might make me sound like a horrible person. And it's true, sometimes I am. Sometimes I can be utterly selfish, or afraid or too busy to bother. But for whatever reason, on that day, I remembered him, so I took out my wallet to look for a fiver or a tenner only to find a twenty dollar bill. Rrrrg. I wrestled with my new found state of enlightenment and resistance to handing over twenty bucks, but decided to follow the higher path and took a left and headed over to McDonalds.
The man saw me coming and his eyes brightened. I held out my twenty dollar bill and said, "Here ya go."
"Oh thank you. God bless you. Thank you." His eyes welled with tears and he looked straight into my soul. I saw him and he saw me.
"Do you mind if I shake your hand?" he asked.
"No, of course not," I said. Completely and utterly telling the truth. We shook hands. His hand was thin, but strong.
He cocked his head and looked down at the ground, "If you're not too afraid, can I give you a hug?" he asked.
And right then and there, I realized that nothing was dangerous about this man. Whoever he was, he had the presence of mind to know how he looked, and to know that I was a woman who might be afraid of him. He was so humble and beautiful and present. He wasn't high, he wasn't drunk, he wasn't mentally ill. He was a kind man who needed help. And in that moment, I was a simply a woman who could offer help.
I said, "Yes, sure," and leaned in to hug him. His arms wrapped around me and he leaned his head into mine and held me for a few seconds.
Arms around me, holding me tight he said, "Thank you." I closed my eyes and tears fell to my cheeks, "I am so hungry," he whispered over my shoulder, emphasizing the truth of each word through his deliberately slow and measured sentence. I could barely breathe. It was too much. Too much humanity. Too much suffering. Too many times I had walked past. Too many twenty dollar bills that could have gone to better use. Too many times that I had been blind.
He held me at arms length, his eyes full of tears and as were mine. He looked at my sweatshirt and smiled. It said "GIVE LOVE" in huge white letters across the chest. Ironic, as I was definitely the receiver of love in that moment.
He set his sign down and immediately went into McDonalds to get food.
Until then, I hadn't noticed his sign. As it laid propped up against the trunk of a tree, I read his beautiful little cardboard sign. It said one word, "CHANGE."
My soul must have seen it. It must have read the message. Because on that day, I did.
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