Last week I was supposed to write two posts, but I ran out of time and mental energy after my post about going back home, or more accurately, that I don’t have a home anymore. So I’m gonna write a quickie!
Last weekend I went to one of my favorite low-key coffee shops, The Holley Mason Rocket Bakery. I love to go there to do grading or writing–I have a hard time staying focused at home. So on Saturday I packed my extremely extensive pile of grading and headed to my favorite spot. A fellow teacher was coming to join me as she also had some grading to do. That meant I had to find a table large enough to fit both of us and our piles of grading, and it needed to be close to an outlet for my computer. My one complaint about this Rocket is that it doesn’t have very many outlets. In fact, I think there are only two in the whole joint. One is near a tiny two-top table, so that spot was out, and the other has a large table near it, but can be quite a stretch for a computer cord. That one would have to do, I thought.
Since I knew exactly where I needed to be when I walked in, I headed over to the table with determination. I must have walked with too much determination, because a man sitting at the next table over looked almost a little frightened as I walked towards him. He curiously watched me as I took out my things and set them on the table. I realized then that the outlet was further away than I originally thought–it was, in fact, behind the man at the table next to me. He was quite pleasant, though, and offered to plug in the computer for me. The cord barely reached, and was so taut I was afraid that the man would be tripped by my computer cord. I told him to be careful of it, and he thanked me.
The man was listening to music on his phone. Without headphones. With the volume turned up all the way. That’s like bare-feet-on-a-plane level of breaking unwritten public decency rules.
When I approached the barista, he asked if the man was bothering me. I told him the loud, tinny music blaring from his phone wasn’t exactly what I wanted next to me as I try to grade final tests, but that otherwise he was fine.
As I started to organize my workspace, I noticed the man watching me. He started to make small talk with me. He told me he’d been in a fight the night before, then showed me his busted lip. I tried to joke with him about losing the fight. He earnestly confirmed that he had, in fact, lost.
Then I noticed things. His sweatshirt was threadbare in places, with holes throughout, and covered in dirt. His hair was unkempt–his dreadlocks clearly had not been twisted in quite some time and his head was flaked with dandruff. When he looked at me his gaze lasted a little too long and something about his eyes made me wonder if he could actually see me. He had a red backpack at his feet that was absolutely filthy. His hands were rough, callused, and ashy, and he looked as if he couldn’t or didn’t regularly shave. He clearly lived on the streets.
I’m going to admit something that doesn’t feel good to say. There was a time in my life when I would have immediately moved from that spot–actually, I wouldn’t have sat there in the first place, no matter how few outlets there were in the place. I certainly wouldn’t have carried on a conversation with him. Here was a homeless black man with a screw or two a bit loose hovering over a phone playing loud rap music.
Everyone is a little bit racist. And that certainly would have played a part in former me moving away from him, probably a larger part than I am still willing to admit. But that wouldn’t have been my primary reason for moving. It would have been his status as a homeless man.
Studies have shown that homeless people are often viewed as non-human. Like objects. Like they aren’t entitled to basic human decency.
Homeless people used to be scary to me, and of course there are times when that fear is warranted. But I was scared of all homeless people, as if they were monsters or boogie men. I would cross streets to avoid them or veer around them or ignore them. I certainly wouldn’t look them in the eye, or smile, or tell them to have a nice day.
A few summers ago I visited a dear friend of mine who lives in D.C. As we walked down the street, Ericka went out of her way to acknowledge every homeless person she saw. She’d tell them to have a nice day, or ask how their day was going, or simply say hello and smile. I made some comment about it to her, and she said something along the lines of, “They’re human beings. I can’t give them a new life, but I can at least give them a little bit of humanity.”
And in that moment I realized what an asshole I am. Since then I’ve truly been working at mitigating this giant flaw. I’ve been friendlier as I walk down city streets. I smile and nod at panhandlers at the bottom of the exit ramp off the interstate. I’ve been more generous with my change and my time. But beyond that, I haven’t done much.
So I tried a new thing on Saturday–I didn’t move from the seat next to the homeless man. I conversed with him on a human level. I condoled with him about his Friday night adventures. Without me asking him, he turned down his music so I could work. I don’t deserve a medal. Neither does he. We were just regular humans having a regular human interaction.
At least for a little bit. He asked me some rather odd questions about what I wore as a college student and what I wear now as a teacher. But I mostly brushed those off. After all, he did seem like he was either a little high/intoxicated or maybe a tad mentally unstable.
Eventually the barista kicked him out of the coffee shop because he’d been there for hours and never bought an item. As he was grabbing his things to go, I told him to have a nice day.
He stopped in his tracks, turned, and very earnestly asked, “Can I kiss you?”
To which I replied, “Hell no, but you can still have a nice day.”
I smiled and waved goodbye. He nodded and walked quietly out the door.
He wasn’t treated like a pariah, and I didn’t let him get away with an inappropriate come-on. All in all, I call the experience a win for both of us.