He is perched upon a milk crate, immersed in his own thoughts. You can tell he has something to share with the world, yet he only stares off into a blurred future. Many people have passed him without a word as he sits quietly.
He is young, maybe in his twenties, although he is weathered as he sits and waits. The crate is on the corner near the McDonald’s off the beaten path. He is dressed in all black, as if to symbolize something unspoken. I have passed this young man a couple of times already, and although I do not know him, he has a recognizable face—one that is yearning for something more—and eyes that tell his story.
One hot and humid South Florida summer day, as I drive by, for some unknown gravitational pull I stop and roll down my window. I say, “Hi,” and ask if he is ok. He looks at me, perplexed, as if he’s wondering why someone would inquire about his wellbeing. Quietly, he says, “Yes.” I say, “Good,” and I drive away. The next day I see him again. This time I hit the drive-through at McDonald’s to order an extra breakfast and the tallest, coldest performance drink they offer.
As I drive away, I pull over to the man dressed in black and hand him a hot meal, which was not requested. Quietly, the man says, “Thank you.”
“One day at a time,” I respond.
I don’t see him for another three days. On the fourth and fifth days, I again buy extra food and drinks, pull off, and hand them to the young man. He offers a soft “thank you” as he reaches toward my window.
He Is Polite
As the man stands next to my car, I can smell his strong body odor. It is pungent, but it does not bother me. The man is homeless. He carries a folded-up cardboard box that appears to become his bed when the sun goes down. He is wearing a frayed and faded black t-shirt, a tattered black light jacket, black pants, and black sneakers. He is thin, his afro is growing large, and he is solemn.
It is almost eleven at night as I type this, and I imagine he is sleeping under the stars on the folded cardboard box on a cement sidewalk or maybe near a patch of grass shielded by some bushes, trying to survive the night and hoping for another sunrise. His life right now is on the streets. My life is quite different, but I’m really not far behind him if I were to lose my paycheck for a couple of months. Most of us are eerily close to homelessness if you really think about it. I feel for him, not with sympathy but with empathy. He is someone’s son, grandson, maybe a brother or friend, but right now he is alone, outside to bear the elements—alone.
The young man never solicits. He is quiet and still in his thoughts.
The next day I stop again and bring him another hot meal. This time I put some cash in the bag as I hand him two sandwiches and large drink. This time I begin to engage him more.
He is in a tough place and probably experiencing the hardest time of his life. This time I ask him his name. His solemn face looks stunned by the question. He pauses for a second and quietly answers, “Tony. My name is Tony.” He is polite and thanks me for the food and drink.
I ask if he is ok, and he tells me he is trying to keep a clear mind. I know he is hungry, tired of being on the streets, and who knows when’s the last time he has had a hot shower. I tell him one day at a time things will get better and to stay strong. He grins for the first time and thanks me as I drive off. He returns to his perch and looks into the bag. I do not see him for the next three days.
Rush to Judgment
Many of you know I wrote another article in my Smack Dab series about rushing to judgement. In this case I rushed to judge. The only fact that was known to me was that he was a man of the streets. That is it. He was a black man, dressed all in black, hadn’t showered in a long time, and he must be on the streets for a bad reason. Maybe he was a child predator, maybe he had a rap sheet the size of his arm, or worse, maybe he was a criminal on the run or had mental issues.
I cannot confirm any of those things as true. This was the mind’s biases at work, which we all have. Now, I would not put my kids around him yet, because in today’s day and age you have to be careful when you don’t know people, but Tony seems different. He spoke quietly, and you can tell he is educated. You could tell he was not your typical addict or mentally challenged person one might see on the streets. I say that with absolutely no judgment passed.
This young man was fighting, but I’m not sure what his fight is.
Three days had passed since I gave him food and a drink with a bit of cash. I was certain he either got what he needed to get back home or he hit up the drugs—another wrong judgment on my part.
Three Days Later
I drive by the same place I had seen him. Another day, no Tony. The transient must have moved on again. I take a shortcut about a half mile from where I normally see Tony, as I have to meet someone for a meeting. As I park and put money into the parking meter through my app, I look down the street. Who is sitting under a tree on a hard plastic milk crate? It’s Tony.
I walk over to him and I say, “Hi, Tony.” His solemn eyes look to me, and he flashes his wonderful smile that I have fallen in love with. His smile says it all: he is happy to see his new friend as am I. I ask him how he’s doing and what he’s doing over here. Again, he replies, “I am just trying to keep a clear mind. Trying to stay clean.” I think the worst: the money I gave him went right to his habit. I was wrong. He tells me he is clean and has fought to stay clean.
I ask him how he ended up in this place. He says he had a falling out with his friends that landed him on the streets. I don’t want to pry, even though I’m curious. We speak for a couple more minutes, and I say I’ll see him soon.
I go to my meeting, and when I come out, he is still sitting by himself, right next to the supermarket, not bothering anyone.
This time I decide to go into the supermarket to get him some cold water, a hot meal, and some other things to last him a week or two, like the bags of tuna and chicken that would hold up and give him some much-needed protein.
I come out of the supermarket with several bags, only to find he has moved again. He is gone. I drive around for about twenty minutes, but I cannot find him. The next day, with the bags still in my car, I drive by that same spot, and this time he is there, sitting by himself, minding his business. This time he spots me, stands up with a big smile, and waves. My heart feels his smile.
I pull over and ask, “Where did you go yesterday? I got you some food and supplies, but you were gone.” He says, “I went over to my other spot.” I give him the bags. I am not sure how he is going to carry them, but they are going to keep him sustained for the next week or so, along with toothpaste and nail clippers—things that are a luxury on the street.
I speak to him some more. Although he has no idea how he is going to carry this stuff around, he manages the bags. He can’t seem to figure me out, but he is grateful. I tell him this is only temporary and that he needs to take one day at a time, try his best to stay clean, keep his mind clear, and get back on his feet. I tell him, “I believe in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself right now.” His tears begin to well up.
His smile and wave got to me, because I think I got a glimpse of who Tony once was in the not-so-distant past as a kid. I don’t know where this story will go; it is unknown. If I continue to see Tony, I will continue to help him the best I can. I don’t know what yanked at me to stop that first day I met him, but I am glad I did.
I have seen him a couple more times since first writing this. He is always cordial, and we talk more and more. The other day I asked about his next steps, how was he going to get off the streets. He has been thinking about it.
He is going to go to Orlando where he has some family and re-enroll into college to study real estate. I asked him when this was going to happen. He said the family is getting settled there, and maybe when they get settled he will go. He said he has their number and will get in touch when he can.
I said, “That is great! You now have a plan,” and he seems determined to stay clean, which is a wonderful feat because when living on the streets the pain can be numbed by the drugs. I told him this is going to work out, giving him any encouragement I can, but more importantly giving him hope. I told him he will look back at this time and it will be his story that he can tell, and that this is only temporary. I asked him to remember the little people like me when he becomes a real estate tycoon. He laughed for the first time in a long time and said I will.
I tell you this story not at all to highlight what I have done, but to show how our actions can mean so much to someone who is having a tough time. My wish is that his dream gives him the strength to persevere and pull himself out of the hole he is in, maybe with a little help from some friends. My hope is that he gets back on his feet, off the street, and begins to put his life back in place. He knows the bottom; I hope he gets to experience the mountaintop, whatever that looks like for him.
Just as I was about to post this story, I ran into Tony again. This time no smile. He locked into me from the second I got out of my truck. I was a distance away. Today he waved me off, as if to say stay away from me. I could see Tony was not himself. I smelled a strong stench of Marijuana coming from the corner. He did not want to see me right now.
I continued into the supermarket where I bought him some provisions along with a cooler stocked with ice cold water and a hot meal. I also bought him one of those old lady carts to carry the cooler and food. I went to the parking lot to assemble the cart. He does not see me, but I am watching him. At one point he laid down on the sidewalk with his hands on his head looking up to the sky as people walked around him.
I finished putting the cart together and filled it up and began to roll it over to Tony. I get to him and this time no smile, he was stoned. Tony’s eyes were sad to see me in this state. I was sad. I just started talking. I reminded him of his dream and the plans he has. He does not say a word. I keep talking. I know he self-medicated himself to mask the pain he is in. I get it, I really do. As I continued to speak, he sat silently and at that very moment tears began to fall from his eyes down his cheeks. He put in head into his hands and sobbed. No more words needed. What a cold, dark place this was on a very bright sunny and humid day. My heart sank even further.
Life Goes On
I needed to go get my daughter from practice and go on living my very different life. I told Tony “I believe in you, one day at a time and remember your plan. I am going to keep showing up until you get back on your feet. Remember your dream that will become your reality.” As I backed away with reassuring words he sat silently and looked at me with tears in his eyes and nodded his head in affirmation.
Tony spoke not a word today – but he said it all. I got into my truck and drove away. Tears began to roll from my eyes. Those eyes just saw a person experience their rock bottom.
I picked up my daughter and immediately kissed and hugged her tightly. I told her “I love you” and she said, with bewilderment “ohhh-kay Daddy.”
I am betting on Tony, and I hope he begins to bet on himself too. Until then I will keep showing up with a random act of kindness.
Onward and up.