(July 11, 2007)
So I went to Starbucks this morning (as usual) and there was an old homeless man in faded khaki pants and a green t-shirt tucked in. He was bald, and looked very worn down. He started saying something to me when I got out of my car but I could barely hear him. As I walked past him I could vaguely make out that he was asking for something to eat. I turned to look at him and in typical American fashion said, "Sorry, I have nothing to give you."
I felt like such a hypocrite. Here I was pulling up in my nice mini-SUV with my nice work clothes and heading toward Starbucks (the ultimate indulgence) and I'm telling this homeless man I have nothing for him. It was partly true though. I rarely walk around with cash anymore and I obviously wasn't going to hand over my credit card to a stranger.
No, instead I walked into Starbucks and ordered my iced coffee.
As I waited for the barista to place ice in a plastic cup and fill it with coffee, my stomach started turning. I knew what it was…it was guilt. It was the fact that I knew that old man was hungry…he had to be. He was so skinny and sickly looking. But there were literally dozens of people passing him on the sidewalk. Surely someone would give him something. Surely. But that's always the idea isn't it? "Someone else will help."
I've purchased meals for the homeless before. Plenty of people have. There used to be a mean old hobo I named "Charlie" (he refused to give me his name) that pestered me now and then at VCU. He asked me for money a few times and finally one day I asked what he would use the money for. "None of your business," he snapped at me. I rolled my eyes and started to walk off. "Wait!" I turn to look at him. "No offense, but I don't have to tell you anything," he said with a little less attitude. "Well no offense," I say, "but I don't have to give you anything." "Fair enough," he said and I walked to class.
The next time I saw Charlie it was a pretty cold morning. He asked for money again, claiming he just wanted to buy a cup of hot coffee. I had time before my next class and offered to buy him one. He shook his head and said he just needed money for one. I started to walk away and he took me up on my offer. We walked to the school library and sat in their coffee shop. He got his cup of coffee and a little break from the cold, and I got a pretty entertaining conversation before class.
Charlie used to be a working man; he did construction for awhile but got hurt and subsequently fired. He lost his apartment, had no family or friends to lean on, so started living on the streets. He didn't get too personal, but he did tell me it was an adventure living on the streets. "Never a dull moment," he said with a chuckle.
I saw Charlie a few more times at VCU. I bought him a few lunches here and there, but my last year at VCU, he disappeared. I can only hope he's ok.
I remembered how grateful Charlie was for the hot coffee and sandwiches. He had this look of relief on his face when he ate.
That old man outside was hungry.
He wasn't asking for money.
He just wanted something to eat.
I grabbed the first food within reach…I hope the old man likes strawberry parfait.