I don’t know what was different tonight. I come to NYC all the time, and the homeless are everywhere. Most of the time, sadly, i’ll admit, I walk right by them….occasionally buying them a fast food meal and going on my way…but tonight, when I saw a balding man siting on the sidewalk with a sign that said “don’t want money. I’m just hungry. Food please” I stopped. He was sitting outside a grocery store, so i ran in and bought a couple of turkey burgers and a dish of rice pilaf and a bottle of water…then another bottle…for me. I found myself nearly running through the store to make the purchases, as if he might perhaps be gone by the time I got outside.
He was still there. thank god. I walked up to him, but instead of handing him the food and walking on, I sat down on the sidewalk next to him. He looked at me like i had three heads. I didn’t know what to say, so I just opened the bag, passed him a burger, scooped half the rice pilaf into the lid of the dish, set it aside, and handed him the rest of the bowl, and handed him a bottle of water. He just stared at me.
“Burgers. Hope you don’t mind that they’re turkey….” And i took a bite of mine.
He just stared at his food and back at me.
“You’re gonna eat, right?”
Tears. And not just a few. I had no idea what to do. This grown man, whom i’d never laid eyes on before, was sobbing on the pavement and i had no idea what to do to help him.
So I took a drink of water, and another bite of burger. Chewing would give me time to think of something to say….
It was time to swallow my bite.
He tore into his burger like he hadn’t eaten in days – must’ve finished it in three bites flat. I broke off the part of my burger that i’d bit off of and handed the rest of mine to him, which he tore up just as quickly.
When he finally came up for air, he remembered i was still sitting there, drinking my water and eating my half of the bowl of rice.
“Why’d you stay?”
The words started then, and didn’t stop for a solid 20 minutes. It really had been a long time since he’d eaten with anyone. His name [well, the name he gave me – the homeless have a way of protecting their identities] was dave. He is a veteran – in the army, deployed to Iraq in the first war. Pulled out his tags and showed them to me. Also pulled out a couple crumpled pictures of a much younger, cleaner him in uniform in the desert. Talked about the war, talked about his wife leaving him, talked about how he never expected to end up on the street begging for his next meal, too afraid to go to the shelters with the ‘experienced’ homeless.
‘what’s your name?”
Here was my dilemma..did i give my real name? I wavered, then chose to give a nickname of mine.
“Some people call me joy”
He nodded and chewed on his burger. Between bites, he spilled his guts about being in the army, about being injured and feeling like he didn’t give ‘enough’ service to keep the USA safe since he didn’t finish his time. Spilled his guts about how ne never thought that he would go from serving in the military to being homeless and having a picnic on the streets of manhattan with some woman he never met.
We finished our burgers, and i realized that my butt was asleep, and that ‘dave’ was done with his dinner, so i stood up to leave.
As i was about to walk off, he called after me….
“hey! My real name’s don. Pray for me?”
I nodded, and stopping for one more second, I looked at him sitting there on the pavement, scooping the last bit of rice out of the bowl, and i asked him…
“Don, was it worth it? You know, being in the army…..”
he finished his water in one gulp, and never hesitated. He looked me straight in the eyes…