Life Lessons From My Lunch With a Homeless Man
My dinner guest taught me more about myself than I ever expected
Jim had long and messy hair. A blue pair of shorts covered his lengthy and skinny legs. His dusty face and hands reminded me of a member of my extended family, whose grooming skills weren’t necessarily admirable.
He had a flat stomach and dirty nails, like those one gains when there’s no money for food or water for a shower.
As I walked past the parking lot, my eyes witnessed the cruel scene. There was a sickening smell of motor oil and feces. A couple of big black dogs lurked while he and his friend, sitting on the ground, inspected their toenails.
My eyes couldn’t believe how comfortable and happy they seemed to be in that corner. I was amused to hear more laughter from them than I had the entire day.
I wanted to walk away. Not the right time, I told myself. You have a nice Chianti waiting at home. But there was something about him, about his smile, and the way he enjoyed that moment with his friend, that made it impossible to head away. Having somewhere to go, something to put in my stomach, made me feel guilty.
Where do you go with somebody barefoot? Would he want to sit indoors or outdoors? How do I make sure he feels safe enough to let go and enjoy it?
Dolce far niente, as the Italians would call it, is the act of finding pleasure in doing nothing at all. It’s sitting back and enjoying the ride, whether it’s a limo or a bus. It’s laying down after a big meal and contemplating the horizon while fulfilling the moment. That is exactly what my friend-to-be was doing. He was definitely dolcing his niente.
“Hey! What are you guys up to?” For some reason, this was the first thing that came out of my mouth. And as soon as it did, it made me feel stupid. I’d managed to embarrass myself in front of two homeless guys I had never seen before. What was I thinking? They don’t even have a place to sleep or some TV to watch. They had all the time in the world.
Surprisingly, they both had zero intentions to make me feel unwelcome.
“I’m down for some food,” Jim said. “Are you a cop, though?”
Soon after, he accepted my invitation for a burger and a beer. His friend had things to do, places to be.
Just thinking of a place that wouldn’t judge his appearance, or me for bringing him there, made me nervous. My self-consciousness wanted to make sure I was using the right words and addressing him the right way.
His nonchalant attitude toward life was inspiring — or at least, I was naive enough to believe it was by choice.
Where do you go with somebody barefoot? Would he want to sit indoors or outdoors? How do I make sure he feels safe enough to let go and enjoy it? I was so anxious that I’d ignored his excitement about sitting down at a restaurant and having something to eat, for the first time in so long.
A couple of hours later, I learned he was what my mom would call “a good man.” He was 52, had never been in jail or in a fight.
His partner died 10 years ago, and a consuming addiction to oxycodone had ruined his financial and emotional stability. His substance abuse had quickly escalated to heroin, which made him sell everything he owned — and more — to satisfy his addiction.
Jim made me laugh and cry over the same meal. Stories from back when he used to teach English were filled with emotion and pride, as he remembers those days as the most problematic but rewarding of his life.
His memories contained fun anecdotes about teenagers and how horny they can be. It all seemed so vivid and real like it had happened weeks ago.
He had seen it all, from child abuse to teen abortions. He also bragged about getting “Teacher of the Year” several times during his 16 years of experience. I was jealous; none of my teachers were as cool as this one seemed to be.
His wife had passed away from breast cancer after five long and painful years fighting with chemo. “Daphne was the love of my life,” he told me. “She left way too early. I never stopped loving her, not even when she hated herself.”
His effort to hold the tears down had failed him. His sadness made him more human.
Jim had so much charisma and humor; we could not stop chatting and laughing. His stories went from bad nightmares most of the nights to sex under a public bench for food and everything in between.
It saddened me to hear how many times, and by how many people, he had been called a crackhead, useless, an addict, scum. His optimism confused and motivated me at the same time.
His eyes were happier than ever as I dropped him on the same block I had found him hours before; he thanked me several times. His two dogs and mysterious partner awaited him.
When waving goodbye, I imagined what most parents feel dropping their kids at summer camp — only this time my kid was 52 and needed a shower and new clothes.
I have learned so much from this guy. It was hard to believe it all started earlier that evening, after a guilt trip and curiosity for his life.
That dinner served as an eye-opener to a huge problem in our society: Most of us think of homeless people as monsters with two heads, as most movies try to teach us.
Addiction is a disease, like diabetes or cancer, and it needs to be un-demonized and properly treated.
If you are reading this, you are luckier than Jim was. You probably have a strong support system, with parents, siblings, friends, and family eager to help when needed the most.
Having a roof, warm food, and a daily bath have become so ordinary that we tend to undervalue them. It becomes easy to forget that some people aren’t as fortunate.
Second chances are rarely given. Alcoholism and other substance abuse issues are constantly viewed as weaknesses in a culture that celebrates porn stars and influencers while not supporting firefighters, teachers, doctors, nurses, and many others if they dare to be flawed.
We are like players on a football team. Some are stronger than others, a few taller than the rest, and a number might be better off sitting on the bench, waiting for their turn to shine, perhaps with more training or different cleats.
Nonetheless, we are all necessary to win as a team and deserve a chance to play — maybe two.