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Saturday, April 15, 2006

How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down...?

What do you think it costs a man to stand on a busy street corner searching the faces filled with downcast eyes, while holding a cardboard sign that announces to all who care to look that he is "Homeless and hungry"? I don't know, either, and, if I'm lucky, I never will.

Mine was one of those faces with downcast eyes. Rehearsal ran until 1 today, so JT said he would eat lunch without me. I was tired and decided to pick up a sandwich on the way home. I'm not great with directions, so as I drove east along Ingersoll, I asked myself, more than once, "Did I pass it already?" Just as I decided that no, the Subway was still ahead of me, I saw him. A man my age, holding up his handwritten sign. Homeless and hungry. I looked away, not wanting to see the pleading in his eyes. Not wanting him to see whatever might have been in mine. And there, just through the intersection, was the Subway.

I pulled in. Told myself that I could at least buy the guy a sandwich. Climbed out of my paid-for Saturn (a '96, but still in great shape) and saw that the guy was crossing the street, moving away from me. Well, that's that, I thought. At least I had good intentions. But I thought about Girlbomb, who was homeless for a while as a teenager, and who now volunteers at the shelter where she lives. I thought about the women at the prison, who had written so eloquently that morning about silence. I had $20 on me. I couldn't cure homelessness or end starvation in the world, but I could feed one man.

I walked to the edge of the parking lot. Watched to see if he kept going down the street, away from me. No, he stopped at the corner, just trying a new vantage point. I waited for him to look my way, was just about to cross the street after him when he finally turned and caught my wave. He jogged over to me, the sign tucked under his arm. "I was just about to buy a sandwich at Subway," I said. "Would you like one?" His smile lit his face. "Yes, ma'am, that'd be real nice." He was dressed in work boots and jeans, and carried a jacket over one arm. He was clean, but seemed a little fuzzy around the edges, as if his hair hadn't been trimmed in a while. There was a light stubble on his cheeks, and his light blue work short looked soft and faded from multiple washings.

I said my name was Hannah. He was Don, who was from Des Moines, but had been away for a while. He was trying to re-establish himself but said it was hard. "Order whatever you want," I said, wondering about soup, salad, what he'd last eaten. We looked at the menu together. Should I go first, I wondered, so he wouldn't feel pressured to make a decision? Or let him go first, and then tell the cashier I was paying for both? I couldn't even remember what I normally ordered at Subway, or think of what I might want. "How about a #7?" he finally said, and I told him sure, if that's what he wanted.

He hung back a little, to let me order. I told the sandwich artist (no lie--that's what they're called) behind the counter that we'd have a #7, and she said, "6-inch or foot-long?" I asked Don if he wanted a foot-long. Get the foot long, I wanted to say, maybe you can get two meals out of it. He finally agreed that a foot-long would be good. I think he didn't want to take advantage. Then the woman behind the counter asked me what kind of bread. I asked Don, showed him the bread choices. He chose wheat. She asked if we were going to share the sandwich. I said no. She asked me if I wanted it toasted. I looked at Don, who said no. I wanted to say, "Talk to him, it's his sandwich," and maybe I should have. But I didn't quite know how. I wanted, most of all, not to condescend. And second, I wanted not to make a big deal. For all anyone needed to know, we were two friends, one of whom was taking the other to lunch.

I ordered my own sandwich, a 6" roast beef, then the sandwich artist dumped two paper baskets full of hot steaming beef onto Don's bread. "That looks good," he said. I told him I was thinking the same thing. I was glad he'd gotten something hot. By the time we got to the condiments, the sandwich artist had gotten with the program, and talked directly to Don about what he wanted on his sandwich. I told him to make it a meal if he wanted, which meant he got chips and a drink. He said, "If that's okay..." and thanked me for buying his lunch. I told him he was welcome, but that really, I wasn't doing much.

Our order came to $10.26, so I have the cashier $20.26, and gave Don the $10 change. "Maybe it'll help with another meal," I said. "Bless you," he said, "and thank you. I really appreciate this." He told me he'd had a job lined up for Monday--day labor--and then he got sick, but that he was hoping things would turn around next week. I shook his hand, said it was nice to meet him, and wished him luck. I wondered, as I left the restaurant, if people were watching, and what they were thinking. Did they think I had just gotten scammed? That I shouldn't have brought That Man into a decent establishment? Had some of them driven past Don themselves, or watched him from the comfort of their tables?

I don't know, and I don't really care. I just know I used the money in my wallet to buy a man a sandwich. And that I cried all the way home.


Blogger Christine said...

The world is a better place with people like you in it!

Mon Apr 17, 10:40:00 AM EDT  

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