I believe in a connection.
I was walking north on Peachtree Street in Atlanta when I saw him. He looked like all the others, dirty and forlorn with stains on the clothes that he wore everyday and every night, and would probably wear until his death. Our eyes locked and created a real human connection between two breathing beings. We were from two different worlds. That was obvious. We would continue down two totally different paths. I would soon break away from my familiar, easy, comfortable roots and go to college. It seemed that he had no hope. He had no home and no hope. His life was practically over, but he was forced to wake up every morning, either by blinding sunlight and blasting car horns or by a hurried, inconsiderate business owner kicking him out of the private stoop he decided to inhabit for the night. One day, possibly soon, I could guess by the fierceness of his uncontrollable coughing, the city would swallow him and he would become another homeless man picked up by the police on a frigid winter night. He would probably end up forgotten, like all the others. No one would remember his faded blue flannel shirt that was a little too small and his enormous ripped and torn pants that looked suspiciously like they used to be khaki. It was impossible to tell their color now though, since they had obviously been through many rainstorms and were caked with layers of dirt that turned to brown dust when he slapped his knee, trying to control the impulse to cough. His shoes had too many holes to count and may have walked thousands of miles, but weren’t good for many more. At first glance, his eyes were red and suspicious-looking, like all the others, and I expected him to ask for money or food, like all the others.
He didn’t utter a word, but between his throaty gurgling and heart-wrenching convulsions, our eyes spoke.
What I gathered from one glance told me all I needed or wanted to know.
This seemingly random man on the street could have been anyone. He may have been a father, brother, husband or great architect. At one time he may have created breathtaking works of art or made important business decisions. Nothing in his past mattered now though. It seemed that nothing great or terrible could change his fate.
He was just another homeless man on the corner beside the gas station. He was elderly and decrepit, sick and tired, like all the other homeless men I saw that day while walking to my sister’s house, but he wasn’t ordinary, his difference couldn’t be determined by just one glance at his clothes or body. His clothing and demeanor could have belonged to any other homeless man on the street, but his eyes belied a deeper sadness and hope than could be found in any other I met on the street that day.
After I dropped my gaze and looked away, I could still feel his eyes on me. His sadness penetrated my thoughts and I wanted to give this man help. I wanted to make his life better. I caught myself. Better? Better for whom? It would make me feel good to help someone in need, but what if helping them, what if helping this man crippled him even more? He was sad, but surprisingly, I sensed hope within the utter sadness that he emitted and I knew that if he truly yearned for a “better” life, I couldn’t give it to him. His “better” life lay behind the pocket of his small, thin shirt and behind his weathered face.
I continued to walk away, attempting to make myself feel better; I tried to convince myself that this man was like me. We could both choose our own futures; no matter how far we had traveled down a given path, there was always time to spin around and run for dear life back down the path to a different, ‘better’ one, if we so chose.
I reached my sister’s nice, warm, loft apartment in a few more minutes and didn’t give the homeless man another thought. He became barely a sentence in one chapter of my life and I went on that day to go out shopping and to dinner.
The next day I left Atlanta, driving south on Peachtree Street and as I passed an almost familiar gas station my gaze was averted sharply to the left. I beheld two policemen loading a body into the back of their blue and white squad car. It was a makeshift hearse and the only funeral procession the body would probably ever get, as family is hard to find when the body is poor.
Once more, one look told me all that I needed to know. I saw the dirty khaki pants and blue flannel shirt and actually felt very little. I did not know this man, we had never met, but one connection, one look from each of us, bound me to this man. I parked my black car and watched the blue and white squad car pull away, driving south towards the station. He would be filed away, like all the others, just another homeless man, just another loser who made nothing of his life and resorted to begging. But this man was not like any other. He was sad, but maybe that is because he knew something the rest of us haven’t figured out yet. One look into his deep brown eyes would tell the passer-by his story and his sadness but also some deeper hope that I couldn’t begin to understand. No one else will ever be able to comprehend all that I gathered from that man’s eyes that cold November day, because those eyes are forever closed, but maybe he isn’t homeless anymore. The better life is always right around the corner, but never presents itself in the ways expected. He found a good life, he was different.
I like to think that I am different too, because of him.
This I believe.