Something happened to me this morning that might have changed my life a little.
I went out to my truck this morning to go get a cup of coffee, and on the way there I was confronted by a man coming from the city bus terminal. I was a bit thrown off by this because of some events that happened yesterday (long story short, I got into a physical altercation with a man stealing from my truck the day before), so I was a bit reserved about someone approaching me by my vehicle in a parking lot.
The conversation started like this:
“Hey, you’re Jim.”
“And? Who are you?”
“I just wanted to ask you about light, man.”
For the next 30 minutes, this guy and I talked. He explained why he knew who I was, and what he was approaching me on the street to talk about in the middle of the morning. Let’s just call this guy “Mike” for purposes of concealing his real name. Mike explained to me that he sleeps across the parking lot from where my truck was parked, and he noticed the bumper sticker on my truck window with the website name on it. Mike then told me that because it’s so hot outside here in Oklahoma City, people with no place to live go to the library and other places around town with air conditioning to spend their days until they get kicked out back into the street. It’s been consecutively in the 100’s here for the last few weeks, so Mike told me he does a lot of web surfing.
It turns out that Mike isn’t an uneducated guy, but he explained that he’s a bit bipolar, got messed up with being a drunk, and has a hard time holding down a job. Mike said that he’s not into meth (and had all of his teeth), and that he’s just trying to stay alive while he “plays the game of figuring” his life out.
Mike then asked me, and I’m paraphrasing:
“A lot of these crazy m***f*** around here like to mess with a man when he’s tryin’ to sleep. I have a flashlight that I keep in my bag that’s heavy, and those big batteries cost money. Is there something I can find that has a solar power collector in it that I can charge during the day and use at night?”
I have to admit that I figured the next step was “hey man, can I also have a few dollars?” After I stared at him for a few seconds, I felt incredibly bad that I prejudged this guy who generally just wanted to know about what he asked, and I snapped out of my dazed stare and we talked about solar flashlights, person to person. After about 10 more minutes of conversation, I asked Mike if he wanted me to give him my solar flashlight that I had in my apartment, and Mike said no thanks.
I tried to convince him that he could just use it for a few weeks if he wanted (I’m not naive, I realize I’d probably not see it again, but that was perfectly acceptable for me) and then give it back “some time.” Mike told me that he didn’t want any money and that he could take care of himself. I finally got Mike to say “yes” to the flashlight, so I asked him to just wait there while I ran and went for it. As the story seems to go, Mike was gone when I got back.
I went back to my apartment.
I also completely forgot to get coffee.
My life has been absolutely effing surreal lately.
I volunteer with a homeless ministry in STL, and there are, astonishingly, many “Mike”s out there. I’m glad you met that guy!
Hey Jim – I’ve learned that homeless people are just people. They can be you or me or a former CEO, most of them did not chose the path they are on. You are right, you can’t judge by looks. But I am sorry you had that altercation, that can be scary. Sometimes if you ask the person stealing from you if he needs something you might get a surprisingly interesting story. Other times it’s best to back off and let the authorities deal with the problem. I am glad you took the time for the guy.
I had a somewhat similar experience my sophomore year of high school. My religious school takes part in a program in DC every year called Panim el Panim, Hebrew for “face to face.” It’s an awesome program that emphasizes political and social awareness. The activities ranged from political discussion with political lobbyists to meeting with our state senator to discuss the issues we felt important, and participating in Tikkun Olam, the social principle in Judaism that means “Repairing the World.” This year we went to an area of DC with a large number of homeless people and distributed everything from socks to toothbrushes. While there a couple of friends and I talked with a man I’ll call Mitch. He walked up to us and asked about what we were doing, so we explained. We also offered him a few things he seemed to need, but he refused all of them. He offered to tell us his story, and while we were somewhat hesitant we were also curious. He started by saying that the reason he is homeless is that about 10 years prior he was arrested and charged with murder. We all shifted somewhat which he seemed to have expected. It turns out however that the charges against him were dropped and the real murderer confessed, he carried the court papers showing this. Even though he was innocent, and the court affirmed this, he had already lost his job, wife, and two kids. It turns out that Mitch has a PhD in engineering and had been doing fairly well for himself, but he hasn’t been able to get a job for the last ten years because of his legal problems, because even though the charges were dropped he still has to list that he was charged with murder on any job application, and after reading that most employers stop reading all together. My friends and I were all struck silent. He told us that it we learned anything from it that it not be that the system is broken, that there are injustices, although its true, but that most homeless people didn’t start that way. Some are born into it but most are there because life had gotten in the way of their earlier life. That day is one of the days I remember most clearly. It was a sobering experience that changed my outlook on a lot of things.
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