The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.
I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted. The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.
I didn’t really think much about it after that. Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents. The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.
Last week, I saw him again.
I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell. As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth. When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away. Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear. I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.
The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet. He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do. And then in an instant, I knew.
I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.” Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.
Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”
He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”
I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”
He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”
I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”
He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine. I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”
My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.
Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.
I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”
What kind of idiot question was that? Of course he needing something else. He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.
He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am. Thank you.”
As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am. God bless you.”
I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.
As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man. I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.
And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.
Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.