the need to understand

This man has had a huge impact on my life, and I don't even know his name. My room overlooks a relatively busy street, and one night when I got back from dinner with a friend - I saw this man sitting outside my door. He had some bags, and looked like he was waiting for someone to pick him up. 

It was maybe 10pm when my friend left, when I turned off my lights and went to my window to creepily watched this man. He was Asian with a little bit of facial hair, probably in his early fifties. When there was a break in foot traffic, he stood up and took off his jacket, and started going through his backpack. Carefully taking out maybe four or five long sleeve button up shirts, he then put on each one, buttoning every button before putting on the next. After all the shirts were on, he put back on his leather like jacket and his baseball cap. 


He lifted that yellow and blue bag of Trader Joe's salted corn tortilla chips to his mouth, pulling the ends of the bag taught to make sure he didn't leave any crumbs. Then he slowly rolled up the empty plastic bag, and then gingerly placed it in his reusable the Trader Joe's bag. 

I don't know if he was moving that slowly, or if that's just how intensely I was watching him. It was such an intimate moment, and yet I couldn't stop staring at him. Like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Everything he did was done with intention, care, and almost respect. Given the state of his clothes, cleanliness, and the length of his hair, I got the sense that this lifestyle was relatively new to him - maybe a few days. After he finished his chips, he gathered up his stuff (the Trader Joe's bag and a skateboard), and stashed it in some nearby bushes. And then he walked away. 

I had this brilliant plan and gathered a bunch of trail mix bars, various hiking snacks and threw them in a plastic bag. After much debate, I went downstairs intending to secretly add my goodie bag with the rest of his belongings, when I literally almost ran into this man. Terrified and thrown off guard, I scurried around the block and then sought refuge in my apartment. He had been holding a handful of flattened cardboard boxes. When I took my dog out later, I found him sleeping under a white bed sheet in the little alcove downstairs, lying on the cardboard for insulation. 

I remember lying in my warm bed that night, haunted by the presence of this plastic bag of food that wasn't meant for me. My mind kept bouncing between my bubble of comfort, and this man who was sleeping just 20 feet below me. My $1,000 mattress and his cardboard boxes. My luxurious down comforter and his plain white sheet. Our matching Trader Joe's bag. His random skateboard.

Why was there such a disparity between what he had and what I had? I didn't deserve "this" anymore than he deserved "that". Where were his family and friends? Did they know he was living on the street? It didn't seem like he had been drinking or doing drugs; it just looked like he was down on his luck. Something that could and probably will happen to most of us at some point in our lives to some degree. I remember thinking multiple times - he has a mom too. 

Someone I knew once recommended talking to a homeless person, and listening to their story. I yearned to hear this man's story, but I was embarrassingly scared of him. I was so ashamed - and clearly still am -  that I didn't give him the food that night, and did nothing to help improve his situation. 

Our paths intersected many times since then. He slept downstairs a few times a week for maybe a month, and other times across the street in front of the pet store. His hair naturally got longer, and more scraggly. During that time I left him a few bags of food and water - always leaving a bag next to him while he was sleeping, but he was gone well before I left in the morning. One warm night I watched him again from my window, and his jeans had turned into cutoffs, and he was barefoot. His leather jacket was also gone. He had developed some sort of rash, or maybe they were mosquito bites, and I watched him apply cream to various parts of his body. I last saw him about a month ago - before the winter rain started.

Since then I've tried to be more honest about what I want versus what I need. There was a semi-relevant Patagonia campaign that I will never forget, which I remember as being something like this. 

but I want it.

but I want it.

I'm guilty of this as well. There was a time when I would go clothes shopping maybe every week and buy something because I could. Now I'm in this different mental space and perhaps I've taken it a bit too far, when I don't think that I deserve anything. Sometimes I want to dye my black hair platinum blonde, however the thought quickly ends when I cannot justify spending hundreds of dollars a month changing something natural - when some people in my neighborhood cannot feed themselves. The thought of a luxurious vacation abroad makes me feel uneasy and entitled. Why should I feel like I can ask for more, when some people are living with so much less. Why should I get what I want, when some people don't have what they need.

Reminded of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, again the things that I find myself caught up with and unhappy with seem so frivolous and petty. Grateful that it means that I have my basic needs met (food, water, safety), I am also reminded that others aren't worried about what I'm worried about because they don't even have the basic things.

Especially due to recent events, this seems like a pivotal time for change so that the world comes a little closer together. Change how we view ourselves. Change how we listen to others. And change how we view and treat each other. 

my life, the emergency

my life, the emergency

meal with three strangers from atlanta

meal with three strangers from atlanta