Thirteen stories below my office window, a man lied on the cold sidewalk. He wasn’t dead, but he also wasn’t really alive. Seemingly invisible to passersby and unbothered by the police, he slept peacefully in every piece of clothing he owned. A discarded cardboard box served as his bed; his left arm his pillow. His dry and cracked lips pursed as he exhaled.
I, too, passed him on my way to the sandwich shop, but he wasn’t invisible to me. After I bought my lunch, I sat down to eat, but I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I wondered about the choices he made that led him to this existence. Were circumstances out of his control? I thought about his family and imagined them trying, time and time again, to help him out of this way of life. Was it drugs? Alcohol? Mental illness? Had they given up on him?
I wondered when he had his last meal, and when he might eat again. We don’t have control over much in the world; often, things happen and we are forced to react. However, I knew I could control one aspect of this poor man’s life: his next meal.
I resolved to buy him a sandwich and something to drink. I would sit down with him while he ate, not to bask in his praise for my good deed, but to sit with him. I wanted him to feel visible, noticed, and cared about . I wanted to listen to him; to hear his story. I desperately wanted to validate his presence on the earth and reassure him that no one is discarded and everyone was important.
As I approached the spot on the sidewalk, his sack lunch in hand, he slept as soundly as before. I stopped and thought about waking him. I didn’t want to startle him. What if he acted defensively and struck out like a cornered animal? I didn’t want to see him hurt or arrested. I just wanted to help him. Society paints the picture of the raving mad street person. Could he be so out his mind that he wouldn’t accept my help? Would I risk my own safety and wake him up?
Like a coward, I set the sack beside him, careful not to touch him. In fear and disappointment of my own generalization, I quickly walked away. I refused to look back until I made it to the corner. The sack remained untouched. I hoped he would wake up soon to find the food. I hoped no one would steal it from him.
Thirteen stories below my office window, a man lied on the cold sidewalk. I couldn’t see him, but I could see a little bit of myself in those who passed him by.