I don’t come across him often, but when I do, I see the same plastic shopping bags filled with recycled bottles and bits of paper that he carries. He is wearing his long black winter coat, no matter what the weather. All covered, he and the bags and his big gray beard, in light grime. He’s the homeless person of the three blocks that I walk to get from one of my places of work to the coffee bar. When my office was located further down the same somewhat high-end commercial street, I had a relationship with a different homeless person.
My “relationships” with these men, and some of the other homeless people I encounter, take place mostly internally within me. Each small exchange with them moves me. Each infinitesimal conversation evokes many feelings and lots of imaginings about their lives, current and former. Though I don’t know any of their names, they individually and collectively hold a place in my psyche.
Yesterday, I came across him, whose name I don’t know because I’ve never asked, standing on the corner. The traffic light changed and I crossed the street, thinking that he would too. But he didn’t. I looked back and he was still on the corner, not moving from his spot as the crosswalk sign changed again to green, to walk. He was looking down at one spot on the sidewalk, stuck.
As I watched him I thought of his enormous vulnerability, with so little protection from being on the street and out in the elements 24/7. I also thought about his strength and courage. No small feat to survive on the Oakland streets as he has, undoubtedly far longer than just the four years I have encountered him. He always seems almost self-contained, with his winter coat and provisions of empty plastic bottles and torn paper packaging. Operating alone, in a different world than the one that surrounds him. How and where does he get food? Where does he sleep? Where does he go to the bathroom? Who helps him? How can he face day after day?
I have no idea of his thoughts or his state of mind. But I know that whenever I hand him food or money, always surprising him, as I’ve never seen him asking for money, he cracks a big smile and thanks me. We have a human exchange.
Yesterday, I crossed back to where he was stuck on the corner. “Here is some money,” I said as I handed it to him. He held the paper money in his hand, just above the milk jugs and paper scraps in the bag. I wondered if it would become just another bit of recycled paper in his bag. I wondered if he still knew what money was and how to use it. “Put the money in your pocket,” I told him. “Put the money in your pocket,” he replied, smiling as he put the money into his pocket.
I’ll never know what he did with the money. It’s beside the point, as far as I’m concerned. The value of those dollars comes from our having had a human exchange. It comes from what I felt in my heart as I handed money to him and he reached out for it. Sometimes that’s what money is—a beautiful human exchange.