It was a sweltering hot Saturday in DC and I had made plans to hang out with some of my friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I had brought back some Cuban cigars from my recent trip abroad and wanted to share the goods while we caught up at their Vegas-style rooftop pool; a quintessential way to spend a stereotypical, millennial weekend with the “bros.”
I pulled up around 1pm and we all agreed it was time to eat- Potbelly’s was right across the street so it was an obvious decision what we were going to do next.
As we walked up to Potbelly’s, a man- who I assumed was homeless- walked up to me and said “Excuse me can I have a moment of your time?” My reaction was almost automatic- “Sorry, not today.” A built up and acquired “defense mechanism” developed from years of getting asked for money on the street when I barely had enough to pay my bills and support myself while working two jobs.
My reaction was instantaneous. I put up a wall blocking all human interaction. To him, it was likely a moment in time where I completely invalidated his entire humanity with a ever-so-polite “fuck you” as I carried on with my day.
He was not satisfied with the fact I was unwilling to listen so he pressed me- “well, why not?”
I replied- “I’m in a hurry and don’t have time right now” as I opened to the door to get my sandwich- a semi-true statement as I was hungry and really had to use the restroom.
As the door began to close behind me- what was likely his building frustration bubbled to the surface and I was the one who he took it out on.
“Fuck you, you mother fucker- you must have forgot where the fuck you come from…”
The door shut and he could be seen, visibly irate, sweat glistening on his forehead storming off down the street.
My first emotion was to kick the door down and storm outside. Run up on this man and give him a piece of my mind. Let him know he has no idea who I was and he had no business talking to me like that. I was going about my day as I pleased and I didn’t want my to be interrupted- that I didn’t want to be inconvenienced…
I calmed down.
I distilled my emotions down to- I didn’t want to be inconvenienced.
I. Didn’t. Want. To. Be. Inconvenienced.
My friend and I then went on to discuss how it’s an unfortunate and a difficult situation to be approached and (what we assumed was coming next) asked for money.
We rarely know a person’s back-story. Who they are, where they come from and how they reached the point of being on the street are usually a mystery. And so our hearts go out, we throw some coins here and there and keep it moving…
I did in that moment what I (and perhaps a collective “we”) do too often. We just don’t want to be inconvenienced- so we say some form of “I’m not going to be bothered with this” and move along.
The rest of the day went according to plan. We hung out at the pool, listened to some music, smoked the cigars, caught up with each other; we enjoyed the day.
As it was time for me to leave, I headed to my car- I was still thinking about this guy. I a bit upset he cussed me out on the street and made assumptions about who I was- but I was more upset at myself for dismissing this man.
To an infinitely less degree, I know what its like to feel that sense of desperation. Like you’re walking around in a glass bubble and no one can see, hear, or be bothered with your struggle. I know that sense of frustration- but I know what it can mean for that one person to smile at you, show you kindness and humanity or just ask how your doing to validate you as a human being.
Driving down the street I saw him again. With a bit more sweat on his brow, pacing the same sidewalk where he read me his version of the Riot Act a few hours earlier.
I kept driving.
But as I reached the first stoplight, I said to myself- “Hold up man, you can’t live like this.”
I pulled a U-turn and parked the car.
I ran up on this dude.
Without hesitation he began to say: “Hey man, I’m really hungry can you help me get something to eat…” The look in his eyes had softened- I don’t think he remembered verbally ripping me to shreds on the ungodly hot sidewalk earlier that day- but in this moment, he looked like a man that just needed and deserved someone to hear him out.
I stopped him mid-sentence.
I said “Look, I’m not sure if you remember me- but I’m the guy you cussed out earlier on the street because I said I was in a hurry.”
His eyes got that “Oh shit, I’m in trouble” wide eye and he immediately proceeded to apologize profusely.
I stopped him again.
I told him “You have no reason to apologize, we both get it wasn’t cool to cuss me out like that but I understand that you’re probably really exhausted and frustrated and you happened to take that out on me when I dismissed you. But I told you I didn’t have time then but I saw you as I was going by again and now I have time. So I came back to listen to you.”
He then told me he was hungry and was hoping for some money so he could get something to eat.
I asked what he wanted to eat and he said “Potbelly’s.”
Unfortunately, Potbelly’s was closed so we went to the Roti next door.
We hopped in line and I asked him what his name was.
Chris told me he’s 36 years old and recently got out of jail. He said he was imprisoned for failing to be able to afford a court fee- the same type of issue that caused unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. He said he can’t afford to eat and save money to pay his court fees. He just wanted to get something to take back to his homeless shelter- something to sustain him for the day.
As I looked down at his arm and saw his prison tats and a wristband that identified him to some institution (perhaps a hospital, a shelter, the jail he had said he had been in recently, I’m unsure), I couldn’t help but think of all the possible policy failures he’s encountered in his life that have allowed him to slip through the cracks of our society to reach this point. Racialized politics, economic policy, mental health policy among so many others. My mind was racing.
I asked him what he wanted.
A “chicken sandwich.”
I said: “Do you want two- one for now and one for later?”
He gave me a look that indicated he wasn’t sure if I was serious or not.
“Get whatever you want.” I said.
He got two sandwiches, a large soda and a water. It was $19.74.
As we parted ways, he thanked me what seemed like a hundred times and apologized again.
I told him “No need to say you’re sorry. Just do your best to get back on your feet.”
My words felt like they fell just short. In that moment I had a deep yearning to do more for this man- to help him find a job, a home. To help him gets to where he wants to go.
But in this moment, I was only capable of getting him something to eat.
As I got back into my car I saw him walking down the street sipping his soda. The look of frustration and despair temporarily missing from his face- temporarily missing until he’s forced to do this again the next time he’s hungry.
I went home.
As I processed this and shared with friends what had happened- I got props. People gave me the proverbial pat on the back saying I did a great thing.
I don’t deserve that.
If anything, I owe Chris a thank you.
He reminded me in his moment of frustration that boiled over on a blistering hot day that I have privilege and a power to wield. That I can influence lives and make the world around me a better place.
He reminded me why I chose public policy as a field and why I hope to one day serve my community as an elected official.
He reminded me why I use policy as a tool to contribute to the Movement for Black Lives.
He reminded me that I have something to give and that if I don’t give that each and every day in every aspect of my life, I need to reevaluate what I’m doing.
He reminded me that if we choose to be convenient all the time- we’re never going to come together, that we’re never going to make the progress necessary to be our collective best.
He put me in check and I deserved it.
Perhaps the $19.74 I spent will just go toward sandwiches and soda- but maybe it will give him the boost he needed to take that step to get back on his feet. Maybe this post will inspire someone to pay it forward in some aspect of their life. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.
Frankly though, this $19.74 and a cussing out on the street reminded me of the man I am and the man I want to become.
I don’t know if Chris will ever see this, but really all I can say to him is: