By 11:15am, the hunger had set in. You see, and I say this with a healthy dose of sarcasm, I haven’t had anything to eat since 8:30am. My meager breakfast consisted of a Greek yogurt, one banana, and three cups of black coffee. As a remedy for my ever-expanding waistline, I am intentionally selecting the foods that I eat and watching the calories that I consume. Fifteen minutes later my delicious deli ham sandwich—featuring thick oat bread, iceberg lettuce, and American cheese—was but a culinary memory. I swept the crumbs into my aluminum foil wrapper for future trash collection. Likewise, the tub of crunchy short-cut carrots disappeared with haste, under the watch of my exaggerated hunger. Four minutes to noon, and I had formulated my not-so-evil plan. I retrieved the object from my wallet, specifically intended for such an occasion, and placed it in the coin pocket of my jeans. Lights off in my office, cell phone and wallet in my pants, with a warm jacket wrapped around my torso—I was off to find Mister Atwood, of permanent residence near the Forbes Avenue and Atwood Street intersection.
In contrast to Saturday’s 85° afternoon bake-fest, a swift cold breeze hit me as I exited my building. I was reminded of the fragility of Spring: temperatures fluctuate without reason, monsoon-like fronts drop oceans from the sky, and fickle winds either chill or refresh you. I cannot even imagine, for one second, surviving in the wild (err, concrete cityscape) without the necessities of life. With a belated birthday card in hand, I headed down the hill toward the Post Office. Hill, crosswalk, intersection, hill, crosswalk, intersection; Mister Atwood was not there. His tattered grey and orange sleeping bag was strewn across the sidewalk as lunch-goers dodged his meager belongings, seemingly oblivious. Without a recipient to my gift, I had to continue to mail my letter.
I walked a few more blocks, and considered all that I have (and all that I pretended that I need, but do not have yet). With minimal introspection, I surmised that I am ridiculous. I am a walking paradox, at times, completely ungrateful for everything that I claim to be grateful for in the last year. I have the necessities of life: shelter, warmth, clothing, food, and water. I have the essential intangibles: love, hope, and faith. Additionally, I have accumulated so much excess in my house that I vow to de-clutter, donate, or throw heaps of stuff and things into the garbage. I have everything that Mister Atwood does not, yet I wallow in countless “I wish I hads”, all First World problems. God, please forgive me for my selfishness.
Stamp purchased, birthday card mailed, and I retraced my route from the Post Office. I nervously anticipated the presence of Mister Atwood located at his post, the intersection of homeless and hopeless. Please pause here for a minute, switching tenses from past to present.
I tell you this story for a reason. It is not so you can high-five me in the hallway or patt my back for a job well done. I do not request a Trophy in Humanity. As a matter of fact, I do not want you to mention this transaction of kindness to me unless you produce and/or participate in an act of random kindness yourself. I want you to look within yourself as I have chosen to do today, and then act accordingly.
Random? Ha, the very word makes me chuckle! I have been working in Oakland for nearly a year now. Each morning, I exit the comfort of public transportation and stand at this intersection. Each morning, for the last 350 days, Mister Atwood has been sitting on the concrete. I have witnessed him covered in a blanket of cold, fluffy snow. I have witnessed him shirtless, covered in sweat, on a scorching summer afternoon. I have witnessed him huddling under a worn umbrella to escape bouts of sideways rain. I have witnessed him walking down the street, leaving his belongings at said intersection, with his seat-less pants exposing red boxer shorts. There is nothing random about this equation, nothing at all.
He has returned to his post, crouched in his dirty sleeping bag, slumped against Rite Aid Pharmacy. I know what I have to do, what a tiny spirit within me leads me to do. I approach him and selfishly pray that he’s sleeping.
Why am I so afraid to be human, have feelings, and actually feel something? That’s a deeper question for another day.
I retrieve the gift card from my pocket, redeemable at a sandwich shop across the street, and drop it into his paper cup along side his toothbrush. This is the moment that I’ve been dreading: he makes eye contact with me. I am instantly surprised, for a myriad of reasons, but none that require elaboration. Instant elation adorns his face and gentle, soft words haphazardly fall from his mostly-toothless smile, “how mush is on there?” I can’t compose a suitable verbal response. I muster my best and hold up ten digits, racing through the intersection, and cross the street. As his mumbled words continue—echoes of gratitude or surprise, I have no idea—I swiftly continue back to the comforts of my posh office. I am ashamed of my personal myopia and embarrassed by all that I have, sort of like a survivor’s guilt.
Final thoughts & challenges
We all have a bucket list with goals that we wish to accomplish in a lifetime. I have been preaching the merits of such a list for weeks now. It is easy to plan for summer vacations and dinners out on the town, but what if the only hope that you have for the day—not even the foreseeable future—is to quench the hunger pangs in your stomach? What if your bucket list only consisted of: 1) staying out of the rain, 2) scraping food together for the next meal, 3) longing for someone to recognize you as a human being, or, 4) to have a location in which to bathe your body?
What if your personal bucket list—as an individual blessed with shelter, warmth, clothing, food, and water—simply consisted of the currency of love and compassion that you had to spend? Would you be able to spend those tokens of kindness and find satisfaction in the process, rather than focusing on yourself? Yes, I know that it is practically impossible, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot try.
Author’s note: Item #40 Buy a Meal for a Homeless Person, completed.