I was having coffee today with a good friend and in the middle of our conversation, a guy stumbles over to us and begins talking.
"Hey guys, I'm a Jarhead..." he starts. The rest of it sort of goes into this indecipherable ramble.
I get it immediately. He's a panhandler and my initial reaction is to put him aside, tell him that my friend and I were in the middle of a very important conversation (we were), and that it needed to be respected. Over the years, I've found the ability to do this, and to a bit of my own chagrin, have taken way too much liberty with it. But something in his eyes stopped me. Something about him made me look for a different way. His words are still making no sense at this point and could have gone on had I let it, so instead I interject:
"What can I do for you brother? What is it that you need?"
He sort of stops and has a tinge of surprise on his face.
"Some change," he said. "I could really use it."
I nod and dig into my pocket, pull out a dollar. My friend does the same. I place it into his palm and attempt to say something meaningful, but it's really just a bunch of crap. It made so little sense that I can't even recall (or don't want to recall) the words to write them out now. A barista from the counter comes over and begins to usher the guy out.
"C'mon man, you can't come in here. No panhandling." He starts to drag the man away. I catch the last part of what the guy says in protest.
"...I just want to be around them," he pleads.
Again, had it been a few years ago, that would have been the end of it. Problem solved. I go on about my day, go on about my conversation. Distraction handled. But something about it felt off. I wanted my life to be different. At first, I thought to say to the barista that he wasn't bothering us, but I understood his position too. It's his job to maintain the café, let the patrons enjoy their coffee. I try to think of the next best thing.
"I'll walk him out," I say. The barista nods and let's go of his arm.
I take the guy out and lean over to him.
"What is it you wanted to say to me?" I asked.
"Okay. I'm not gonna lie to you," he starts. "Because there's no point in lying. Telling one lie just means you gotta cover it up with another."
I give a small smirk and nod.
"I just need a beer right now," he says.
I look back into his eyes again and I'm immediately reminded of this word I learned in Brazil. If you ever visit an indigenous tribe in the Amazon (or at least the same ones I have), you will often hear people call you this word: "Txai". It means something more than "Brother" or "Sister". It means "I am another you. You are another me." This is something they used in the movie Avatar and the meaning is profound. Think about it. If we went about life looking at everyone as another version of us, we wouldn't think of the homeless as degenerate low-lifes who can't get their shit together. We wouldn't think that they're lazy, or 'just not trying hard enough', or that overcoming alcoholism is as easy as simply stopping. We might, instead, think that if just one part of our life was different, we'd be right where they are. Maybe if we were born in a different crib or had something done to us when we were children. Maybe something completely out of our control happened at a time when we were not protected. Sure, everyone does need to be accountable for their choices despite the circumstance, but it might also make the world look a bit different. Instead of castigating or criticizing, maybe we'd try understanding and giving compassion, because giving compassion to others is giving compassion to ourselves. Who knows.
We both sort of chuckle. I tell him I appreciate his honesty. I reach into my pocket and pull out a $5 bill. I think about all the things I've heard about giving money to panhandlers, drunks especially. It really only enables the problem and can very much make it worse. But there are other things to consider too. The temperature has been in the 30s these past few days in Seattle. It was pouring rain at the time. I figure maybe the liquor would keep him warm. I dunno. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but it was what I did.
He smiles and sort of pats me on the back. I try to say something else to him. I want to say something along the lines of, "You can always use it for something better," or "There's always another choice," but I can't get the words out. It's probably because I have no idea what it feels like to be this dude and it would be kind of asshole-pretentious of me to tell him what to do with his life. Instead all I can muster is pounding myself in the chest. He sort of looks at me quizzically. I pound once more.
"Oh, uh, hit myself?" he asks. "Right here?" He hits himself way harder than what made me comfortable.
I sort of cringe and shake my head, think about how much of an idiot I must have looked like. I don't even really know what I'm trying to say, so I just pound again.
"Oh! The heart!" he laughs. "You're alright man."
I stand there for a moment as he walks away. A dumb smile comes across my face. The funny thing is that people might read this story and think I did something for the guy, but in reality, he did way more for me.