A few mornings ago, I gave $0.75 and a free coffee to an old homeless guy a block or two from my office.
(Stop, stop. That makes the entire incident—and myself, for that matter—sound far more charitably-minded than it should. Let’s start again.)
I blew past an old homeless guy on the street a few mornings ago, only vaguely aware that the poor man was sitting outside in -20something weather as I peeled through the dozen or so things in my head. When I reached into my pocket for my phone, my finger hit some change and a free coffee stub I had stuffed in there on my way out the door, kicking my guilt into high gear and forcing me to shamefully walk back and toss that change and coffee stub into his cup, all while foolishly thinking that my conscience would be appeased and I could carry on with my morning. (That’s more like it.)
Thanks for turning around, he said as I walked up, obviously aware of the asshole that flew past him earlier. As I was crafting some guilt-soaked bullshit to offer up for not stopping, he reached out to fist-bump me and blurted out every little bit helps brother, generously letting me off the hook. Too kind of him, really.
He looked down at the coffee tab in his cup. Now I don’t have to spend any of this on a coffee. Thanks for that, awesome. That begged the question of what he was going to spend the smattering of change in his cup on instead. I typically don’t ask, but the question popped out before I could swallow it down.
I’m saving it up, he said. A bit here, a bit there, every day.
He started telling me about his idea to have a cart. A fleet of carts, in fact: something that he could sell bottles of water from in the summer, or coffees and blankets in the winter, or maybe even umbrellas in the wet rainy spring months. He’d have others working for him, too.
There are homeless people all around the world, brother — living on the street, begging for dimes and nickels. It would be good for them, too.
A global operation.
He clearly had lots of other ideas floating around in his head and was excited to tell them to someone that looked like he was genuinely interested (I was). The passion he spoke with was palpable: his face glowed and his eyes danced as he paced back and forth, as if he couldn’t control his feet. It was hypnotic; in a strange way, I found myself feeling a touch jealous.
I told him it was a great idea and that he should do it; he quickly countered with I can’t. Before I could launch into him on the cop-out I can’t is, he followed up with an explanation: to do it requires money, and no bank would ever give him some because he’s just some homeless guy with no credit or collateral, living on the street. While we were standing there talking, I had mentally bundled up the assortment of blankets and cardboard he was standing on, swapped out the dirty parka and toque for a slick haircut and a nice suit (there was a matter of some missing teeth, but that was addressable); and if I had taken that fellow to work with me, he would have easily been confused with any of the dozens of well-paid, non-homeless executives I talk to every single day. Maybe the passion he spoke with would have given him away; few people I meet in any given day has that kind of passion about anything, but that’s another Ramblingsss entirely. In that instant, I realised that he could have been any number of people I work with. He could have been me.
So. Where did he and I veer away from each other on the Path of Life? What happened on his path that led him to call a milk crate on a vent at the side of a busy city street his office, his resting spot — the place he took a nap? And what along my path wound me up in a life so far removed from all of that? And how fragile is all of it?
Time for a little game, Faceless.
Let’s say that I go back and find my little homeless guy tomorrow. When I find him, I cut him a check to get his little business venture off the ground. It could easily be argued that for reasons completely out of his control, that he was left with no other option but to take refuge on the street; perhaps it was mental illness that got him there, or a life that fell so completely and totally off the rails that he had no other choice than living in an alley, or under a bridge. Maybe he had no support structure to speak of in his life: no family member to take him in, no friend to loan him a spot on the couch and a few dollars to get him past a rough spot. Chew on that thought for a minute. If your world went totally pear-shaped, where would you go? Maybe you’d end up right where he is. Maybe.
With my investment dollars in hand, he buys a cart—maybe two or three carts—and stocks them with goods, hires a couple others…they take to the streets, hawking their wares, changing lives. Sounds good, right? He’s got a meaningful income—better than a few coins tossed into his cup by an asshole like Yours Truly out of pity or shame—and he feels like he’s accomplishing something, all while making a difference for a few others that needed an opportunity thrown their way. He gets off the street and finds an apartment, meets a lovely lady or fellow, and this ugly period of his life is behind him. There have been lots of rags to riches stories; people pulling themselves up from nothing and doing what seems to be the impossible. Maybe he could be one of them.
What bothers me so much is the fact that I can counter my earlier argument with this: maybe, just maybe, he was supposed to be there. And maybe it didn’t matter what I or anyone else did to alter the less-than-desirable reality he calls Life, his path would always end right where I found him: sitting on a flipped-over crate waiting for someone to throw a guilt-dipped quarter into his raggedy paper cup. If he was really so ambitious, or if he was capable enough to hold down a job or follow through on any kind of venture, he would have already found the means to do something—anything—to change his reality. I know many people that have found countless ways to toss a hand grenade into their lives over the years, watched it gloriously blow apart and rebuild them stronger than ever. I’ve known people to have and lose everything, swept away by addictions, breakdowns and such, just to gather themselves back up and stand proudly back on their feet. I also know more than a few people that, if it weren’t for the oceans of money they were lucky enough to be born into, they’d be keeping my new homeless friend company on that street corner. Or worse.
So. Is it possible that we were always going to be who and what we are? Predetermination, kismet; call it what you will. I’ve always respected the element of (and necessity for a good helping of) luck in one’s life, and am a big proponent of the concept that you create your own luck through the actions you take (or don’t), or through the choices we make. But is it possible that regardless of how hard we work, or how much effort we put into fucking things up, that it’s all for naught? That no matter what we do or what we think we’re entitled to, there are inescapable forces at work—fate—that will ensure we end up in a particular time, or in a particular place? It’s a thought that’s both comforting and depressing, huh.
I met a man years ago that lived on a similar street grate outside of my office. As crazy as the day is long, he was; or so he appeared. The city was in the midst of an election and he had crafted his own campaign signs, announcing his candidacy for City Hall. I stopped to listen to him holding court on the sidewalk one lunch hour, and he walked over to where I was standing.
I need your vote – can I count on you?
I asked him why he thought he should be Mayor… why on earth would I vote for him? He looked me squarely in the eye and his voice took on a calm, eerily-measured tone that freaked me right the fuck out, far from the raving lunatic that was standing there a second before. He told me that no one else on the ballot had ever seen the city from his vantage point; that no other candidate watched the city pass them by from the sidewalk and could possibly understand how desperate some of its citizens were—for a few cents to buy a coffee, for access to social services, for the basic necessities of existence—and that he could speak for all of them. That’s why.
I looked at his old, weathered face and wondered if I was just looking at an older, bizarro-world version of me? What was he, before he wound up here? Was he a politician? Someone’s father? Was he someone’s husband or long lost brother – or just someone that spectacularly checked out of the world and it had long ago abandoned hope of ever finding him again? I was intrigued and wanted so badly to ask him where he came from, how he ended up there on the street corner running for Mayor — but just as I was about to, he ran over to a couple of women and told them a wildly crude joke about BJ’s and dirty penises (it was pretty damn funny, I have to admit) before he cracked himself up and proceeded to literally skip down the street. Mental weather forecast: lunacy, with the odd chance of lucidity in the mid-afternoon.
I never saw him again; clearly, his mayoral campaign was a failure. But he’s stuck with me over the years… I’ve caught a glimpse of him in many of the homeless souls we all pass every day, our heads down and distracted, or just choosing not to see them at all. Maybe a little of that lives on in my new homeless friend on the corner. And I’m not sure if there’s any merit at all to the destiny aspect of my argument… just tossing it around, really. But I’ve often wondered what would happen in my own world, if it all came crumbling apart. Maybe I’d be sitting on a milk crate too, planning my global cart empire; or maybe I’d be putting together my campaign plan for the next mayoral run. Or maybe I’d pull it all back together and end up where I started again. Maybe, maybe. It definitely puts our lives in a different light, doesn’t it?