I just had a truly genuine human interaction.
I was walking from my loft to the train, about a mile or so. I usually take a back way, along the tracks, by some spray painted walls and broken chain link fences. Just now as I was walking that path, about fifty yards ahead I saw a guy in tattered clothes climbing out of the bushes. He was collecting his things on the ground. My brain went into self protection mode as I got close. I knew the pitch was coming. I was a few feet away when he stopped me.
"Excuse me," he said, launching into what I assumed was the pitch for money, "Can I ask you something?" I stopped and turned to him, "Yes?" He immediately started in with the pitch, with the rushed cadence of someone who has been denied so many times and who knows they need to get all the important words out as quickly as they can. "Well I've been having a hard time and I've been staying out here and I am wondering‚ I don't know what to do‚ if you could help because I need help and I was wondering..."
I cut him off, slightly impatient for him to get to the point so that I could catch my train. I was ready for him to finish the pitch so I could say, "No‚ I don't have any cash on me, sorry my friend‚" and walk on. I said, "I do need to get to the train. Is there something specific you needed?" I was trying to prompt the end of the interaction.
He took a deep breath and said, "Well I'm not sure if I should just stay out here again and walk around for a few days, or just go to jail and turn myself in because the drug of my addiction makes it hard to be around people when I try and stop. And maybe it's not safe for them and I think I should just turn myself in at the jail or else just walk around and try to avoid people for the next couple days...what would you do?"
There was no money pitch. He was literally just asking for advice. The look on his face was truly desperate, sad, exhausted. I took a deep breath too and my whole tone changed. My whole world changed. I told him, so I could establish common ground, that someone very close to me was an addict and that I wanted to hear more. The look on his face in that moment. I don't have words for it. He realized he was being listened to.
He told me about his addiction and where he was in his life. We talked about options. We talked about staying away from jail because the police are not friends of African American men, the homeless, or the drug addicted. We talked about how he was doing everything right by considering the safety of those around him. We talked about how good it was that he was trying to get sober even if the path seemed impossible. We talked about places he could walk to downtown to ask about safe places to detox and hopefully sleep safely. It was one of the most genuine conversations I've been a part of in forever. I just hope it was helpful.
At the end of our talk I told him again that he was doing everything right by trying to get sober and to keep himself and those around him safe. He looked at me and said thanks and added, "I'm trying. I can't do it alone."
As I turned and walked away he was looking out across the tracks, considering his options.
This isn't a post about me. It is a post about all of us. Its a post about being so wrapped up in getting to a train, one that runs every five minutes, that I would have been willing to ignore and deny another human being who was in a desperate place, before he even had a chance to finish his first sentence and connect. How jaded have I become, and how self absorbed. I think about the greeting one encounters in Africa when a person will greet another by saying, "I see you‚" and the response to having that said to you is, "I am here."
Connection, at the most basic level. Seeing one another. Being here. And how simple it can be to reach across the closest of distances‚ that is‚ if we don't make those distances so far by being wrapped up in our own seemingly-so-important absolute bullshit.
I see you. I am here.
My only regret is that I didn't ask his name, the guy by the side of the tracks who is trying to get sober in a way that keeps those around him safe, and who was at the point where he was willing to ask for help from a total stranger. What a hero.