Running into Whole Foods the other morning to buy a muffin, I noticed a homeless man sitting across from the entrance. He was an older guy wearing a bunch of mismatched layers with the usual assortment of bags and a little cardboard sign asking for change. I wasn’t surprised to see him. Whole Foods always seems to attract the homeless. A lot of well-heeled people shop there.
But as I got closer to the entrance, I began walking a little faster, moving to the inside of the sidewalk away from him and fumbling for something in my purse to avert my eyes. The word ‘sorry’ was already forming on my lips and he hadn’t even asked me for anything yet.
Not exactly the compassionate and fearless soul I think I am. Don’t tell anyone. The fall from grace would cover me with bruises.
I know in my guts that homeless people have as much right to dignity as I do, so what was with the cringe? Was this a ‘privileged white person’ blind spot in action? If so, it wasn’t pretty. And don’t ‘tsk, tsk’ unless you have never wrinkled your nose walking by someone sitting in a piss-stained doorway.
But something snapped me out of it before I got to the doors of the store. I could actually see myself cringe while I was doing it and not 10 minutes or an hour after the fact. And in an instant, I decided to be someone different. I slowed down and as I came up alongside the man, I looked directly at him, smiled and said ‘good morning.’ His face lit up in a big smile and he said ‘good morning’ back and in less than 2 seconds our tiny connection had transformed him right before my very eyes from ‘homeless guy’ to ‘person’ and a trickle of lightness seeped into my chest.
Inside the store, I impulsively ordered 2 muffins and as I waited to pay, a little movie of me proffering a muffin into the man’s grateful outstretched hands snuck into the little movie theater of my mind. I was just beginning to wonder what it would be like to sign up for the volunteer program at the Union Gospel Mission when a question jolted me out of my thoughts.
Hey wait a second, what if this guy hates muffins?
What if he’s allergic to nuts?
Did being homeless mean he had to accept whatever I chose to drop into his lap? Vegan muffin? Pork rinds? I’ll decide what you get?
I noticed a sticky sort of discomfort as my blind spot was revealed once again. D’oh!
I went back outside and walked over to where the man was sitting.
“Hey,” I said. “I bought two muffins and was wondering if you’d like one. Its got lots of seeds and nuts in it, I think its Pumpkin.” I trailed off, feeling a little silly talking to a homeless guy about healthy muffin choices. But it felt really important that he have the space to decline.
He smiled his big smile again and said “oh yes thank you,” and I handed him the little brown paper sack. I smiled and turned to leave. I could hear him rustling the bag. I was a just a few paces away when he said something to me that I couldn’t hear.
“Sorry?” I turned and asked.
“You look really pretty today!” he shouted, grinning ear to ear.
Normally if some older man yelled something like this at me on the street, I’d think ‘letch’ and turn my nose up. But weirdly this connection felt fun and light and wonderful. And this wasn’t just a Disneyland fantasy of us becoming good friends, ignorant of the practical barriers that might take the scene in a decidedly more difficult direction if crossed.
This was different. As though we were meeting on a plain that was unique for both of us. Able to step briefly out of our roles and situations to acknowledge something deeper and far more timeless in the space of a couple of seconds. That in some weird way, we were connected.
I smiled and laughed the rest of the way down the sidewalk feeling pretty sure I got the better end of the deal.