Mister Atwood, honestly I don’t know his actual real name, lives at the intersection of Atwood Street and Forbes Avenue, in front of the Rite Aid Pharmacy. The dedicated reader may recall my interaction with said homeless man, back in May, when I wrote the narrative titled Finding Mister Atwood.
Day after day, month after month, season after season, I see this fragile old man sitting on the sidewalk. Somedays, I am able to completely ignore him; other times, my heart breaks for the man. With a heart primed in Yuletide cheer, the entire month of December fell into the latter category. Finding support in my children—who apparently ooze with empathy—I tell them my idea about Mister Atwood.
Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’ ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
Before I tell you the rest of the story, I will admit that finding someone (especially a stranger) to show compassion toward, is really difficult—at least for me, anyway. Empathy and sympathy are two traits which I am personally trying to improve upon, but clearly I was dealt the short hand in both categories.
Since 1997, I’ve been skeptical of homeless people. Fresh out of college, transplanted in Maryland with a new occupation in Washington, DC, I walked the streets of Georgetown each day during my commute. It was during my 6-month stint on M Street that I found out the (sometimes harsh) reality of homelessness.
As a lad of only 24-years old, I was full of sympathy for people less fortunate than me. Much like my current commute, I noticed the same challenged individuals everyday. On several occasions, I even attempted to help them, by packing an extra orange or snack to distribute during my walk.
On one such day, I brought a few packs of cheese crackers with me, in hopes of handing out my extras to those who didn’t have anything—or, at least, that was my understanding. A mother and her child were panhandling along a sidewalk, I approached them both, offered my free snack, with no other strings or conditions attached.
“I don’t want your food, just your money!” I was immediately rebuked, with the mother scolding me for offering food to her and the child.
Until that day, I never noticed the brand new, high-end sneakers on the child. It was then, and only then, that I started to feel duped, on a global scale. My wide-eyed view about the world began to shrink that day, each year constricting tighter and tighter, until my ability to see and feel and think of other people—optimistically, from an empathetic and sympathetic perspective—was severely restricted and diminished.
Being homeless is like living in a post-apocalyptic world. You’re on the outskirts of society. ~ Frank Dillane
Back to the thought of my children: my kids know of Mister Atwood, in the sense of what I tell them and describe for them. I want them to know, to be aware of, about a world that exists, beyond the comfort of their own living room, and the convenience of running water, warm beds, and three square meals a day. In the real world, people hurt, and are hurt on a regular basis.
I explain to them how I want to do something nice for Mister Atwood, above and beyond the first gift of a meal, given to him earlier in the year. Winter is approaching, and no matter how many times I fathom the reality, I can’t imagine sitting on that cold sidewalk for thirty minutes, let alone an entire day or week or month of my life.
Prior to Christmas, my daughter and I make a trip to the local Dollar Store where we intend on purchasing a bag full of practical items for this unfortunate man. Toothbrush, toothpaste, a variety of snacks, several water bottles, hat and gloves, hand sanitizer, new socks—all of items are packed in a black stringed backpack.
On the following day—the last day of the academic year, before my ten-day break—I carry the bag to work. When I exited the bus, I searched for Mister Atwood, yet he wasn’t in the usual location. With that being the last day before Christmas break, I left the gift bag in my office space, over the holiday.
And that brings us to today, when the opportunity has risen for me to walk the bag down the hill, in search of Mister Atwood.
From across the street, I can see that someone has handed the homeless man a bag of McDonalds food, and I briefly hesitate at the red light, before crossing. It’s not that I want to have a full blown conversation with the man, but I do want to establish eye contact, even for a brief moment, before plopping my gift down on his patch of dirty concrete.
I approach, and I get close enough to see his snow white beard, stained yellow from cigarette smoke. Within his ecosystem, I can see the scribbled words on his cardboard sign, although I can’t recall the exact arrangement.
“Here you go, Happy New Year,” I say with much enthusiasm, and I really do mean it.
“Ahhh, yeah, Happy New Year to you too,” he gleefully replies.
I’m wondering if he’s processing the quick windfall of fast food, and the mysterious black bag that I just handed him. It’s really difficult to compete with fresh hot french fries. But I don’t desire anything from him, nothing in exchange. I hand him the gift and walk away, continuing toward the library, which is my next lunch break stop.
Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself ~ Mohsin Hamid
But you may be wondering about the selected title and image for the day—that’s what I’d be asking myself right now, if I didn’t already know the answer. In a practical answer, I can tell you that I needed to pick up a book from the library. The second floor non-fiction department features a few top-secret windows, tucked away in the back wing, that overlook the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I love this spot where I can look down into the dinosaur exhibit, and I feel like it is a place that only I am aware of, nestled between shelves of dusty books.
As I stand and peer through the skeletal ribcage of some ancient dinosaur, that I surely don’t know the name of, I draw a parallel to Mister Atwood’s story. For a homeless man, the chances of pulling himself from that lifestyle or set of circumstances, is the probably same odds as you or I have of wrestling a dinosaur. Firstly, you won’t find a Brontosaurus in the wild, to challenge. Secondly, if you happen to accomplish the first, you wouldn’t have much luck in getting a mammoth creature to submit to you.
Mister Atwood is a man who wrestles dinosaurs, metaphorically speaking. I’m certain that he wouldn’t choose to be homeless, if given an opportunity to be anything else. The uphill battle for shelter and food, daily struggles, and sheer willpower required to simply survive would break the spirit of most men and women. Honestly, I don’t know how he survives from day to day. At the same time, his circumstances appear so insurmountable and seemingly impossible to reverse.
Day after day, month after month, season after season, I see this fragile old man sitting on the sidewalk. His resilience is admirable, but at the same time he will someday disappear from the concrete University landscape, as a victim of poor health or exposure.
And even with all the above being said, I will reluctantly cross #39 Show someone compassion from my bucket list today. Why is it so difficult to feel, to help, and to identify with people other than yourself? That’ an answer to a question that I’m still working on.