As I enter my favorite Starbucks for a post-workout non-fat latte I see him. The hunched-over figure was there, again, but this time he is in a corner near a sun-drenched window. He appears to be sleeping. Yellow finger-less gloves covered his hands, which lay in his lap, almost lifeless. The hood of his dirty gray sweatshirt jacket was pulled down over his head, covering much of his eyes. His legs were concealed by an old army-green wool blanket.
The man is in a wheelchair.
I frequent this Starbucks too often really, usually mid-morning after the gym, but also afternoons as well. I’ve been trying to cut down but I keep getting lured by the point system of free drinks or food after so many purchases. This wheelchair guy has been a fixture now for many weeks. It’s not altogether surprising given than it is winter; it has been cold here in middle-earth land Alabama.
It’s hard to tell his age: Hmm, maybe late thirties? Was he a war vet? Is he a victim of disease? I should broach a conversation. But…well…you know…..
From the looks of it, one thing seems certain: life has not been altogether easy or kind for him.
Most times I grab and go with my coffee but lately I’ve been staying for a spell in an effort to get more reading in. I’ll order coffee and maybe a treat and sit in a comfy chair with my Kindle turned to my current read. So I’ve had a chance to watch the guy in the wheelchair. He doesn’t appear to engage with anyone. Sometimes he sleeps and sometimes he seems deeply sad, staring-off into space, as if yearning for another life. And, sometimes, he seems to be keenly aware, with even a hint of a smile as he people-watches.
It’s my turn in line to order. The young barista at the register has beautiful eyes, perfectly lined …and her arms are covered with colorful, nicely done tattoos. How can she afford them? I have often wondered.
“What is his story? —the guy in the wheelchair over there—,” I ask her, sotto voce.
“He’s homeless,” came the reply.
I sort of figured that given his appearance.
“I thought as much,” I said. “So…well…Okay. I’d like to buy him a drink or a meal…anonymously. Can you put a purchase for him on my card please?”
The barista was quite matter-of-fact…as if this wasn’t the first time she’d been asked the very same question.
“He won’t take it…so don’t bother.”
Ah. Immediately, I am sad.
I order my coffee and take it for the road home.
As I drive, I am deep in thought about the man in the wheelchair. A memory from my Southern California days surfaces. It was about another guy who wouldn’t take anything either. For eight years, during every morning run I made to the ocean I’d see a seriously bedraggled man who looked liked he’d just spent years holed-up in a cave. Privately, I referred to him as Caveman Dude. His shirt barely covered his distended belly and his hair and beard were almost always scruffy, wild and unkempt. His legs seemed perennially swollen and his feet, often bare, were a mess of sores. Nearly every day Caveman Dude could be seen walking up and down the main drag or along the The Strand (the beach boardwalk). He walked with purpose, as if he was going to work or meeting a friend for lunch. On occasion, In the early morning I’d see him cocooned in a sleeping bag near a business merchant’s doorway. Some days he’d be limping, shuffling, barely able to walk…other days he’d be sitting on a street corner soaking up the Southern California sun like throngs of other beach goers. And, some days, he’d have a Styrofoam coffee cup in hand, which made me feel hopeful for him. It was evident he was homeless and it boggled my mind that for so many years he’d been living this way.
Every time I saw him I wondered: What is his story? How did “this life” happen to him?
One day as I was running up the steep hill from the pier I see Caveman Dude limping down the hill in my direction. Tired and sweaty, I was nearing the end of an 18-mile long run. As it often happened during my long runs I’d find money on sidewalks, in street gutters or on dirt trails. Pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters and, amazingly all too often, dollar bills too. On that particular run I was giddy with delight over my finds: three dimes, five quarters and two wadded-up dollar bills.
As Caveman Dude approached I thought: Here is my opportunity.
I stopped running and fished out the street money from the pocket of my drenched running shorts.
As he reached me I smile and hold out my hand, saying something to the effect: “Hi. Good Morning. Look, I found this change on the street while running so I’m giving it to you.”
He stops for only a nano-second, not making eye contact. He shakes his head and ever so politely says: “No thank you.” as he continues on.
I was dismayed but impressed by his politeness. I didn’t linger nor look back.
On that day too, I was inexplicably sad.
Whatever their stories may be, I’m ever aware that in the blink of an eye_________
Well…you know, I could have a story too.