I live in a town that has a significant number of tourists and a smattering of homeless people. Yesterday, I was on my way to meet my friend Barbara for lunch, and I parked in a public lot not far from the restaurant. Two homeless men and an old dog were stationed near one of the few available parking spaces, and I pulled into the spot with a bit of trepidation.
“Wow, that’s a really nice car,” the man with the matted grey hair said.
Hoo boy, I thought.
As I reached into my purse for coins for the meter, the other man, an elderly looking Native American, shakily put a quarter in the slot. He had long black hair, the bulbous nose of an alcoholic, and a nasty-looking cut on his forehead.
“Thanks, but you don’t need to do that,” I said.
“It’s okay,” replied his friend. “We do it all the time. We do it so people won’t hate us so much.”
His words stabbed my heart.
I handed the black-haired man the quarter I was going to put in the meter, but he refused to take it.
“No,” he said firmly. “I want to do this.”
“Then use my money for someone else,” I suggested, and he took the coin from my hand.
“Well, I’m going to meet my friend for lunch now,” I said, wondering as soon as the words were out of my mouth why I was sharing that pointless piece of information.
“Have a great meal,” the grey-haired man said. “And Merry Christmas.”
When I arrived at the restaurant moments later, I asked the owner if he knew anything about the homeless men in the parking lot.
“I know that people complain about them all the time,” he replied. “Did you have a problem?”
“No,” I answered. “Quite the opposite. They fed my meter and were very polite.”
“I’ve never heard anyone say that before,” he answered.
I asked him to add two sandwiches to my lunch order. “They could probably use a decent meal,” I said.
When Barbara and I finished lunch, the restaurant owner brought over a large bag. It was fairly heavy, and I could feel the warmth of the food seeping through the paper.
“It’s on me,” he said. “If you’re kind enough to want to feed them, I want to help.”
There went another shot to my heart.
By then it was raining, and Barbara and I huddled under her umbrella and made our way to the parking lot. My homeless men weren’t in sight, but a cluster of others were gathered in and around the public rest room.
I tentatively approached one of them. “I’m looking for two men,” I said. “They’re both rather old, and one is Native American.”
“Yeah. That’s Billy. They’re in the bathroom,” he answered. “I’ll get ’em.”
I saw the black-haired man—Billy—just inside the door, and he moved more slowly that I thought anyone could. I tried to read his face–is that fear I see? He finally walked up to us, his eyes downcast. He looked like a child who had just been called into the principal’s office.
“This is for you and your friend,” I said, handing him the bag. “I thought you might like a hot lunch on a day like this.”
He took the bag. Didn’t speak. Didn’t look at me. Finally, he made eye contact.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “Merry Christmas to you. Merry Christmas.”
“Kin I have a hug?” one of the other men asked. He seemed drunk. He was filthy. He was smiling like a child.
Oh, what the hell.
I put my arms around him and hugged. Then Barbara did the same. I turned to the Native American man, who still had an expression of fear and slight confusion on his face. I hugged him, too. “Merry Christmas, my friend,” I whispered.