Lesson I Learned From Having Lunch With A Homeless Man
I was recently on an Amtrak NorthEast Regional train heading towards New York. Two rows down from me was a lady sitting by herself in a family designated seating area. She was bent over, her head between her legs as she consoled her dog in a bag. Few minutes into our ride, a man opens the train cart doors and sits next to her. He seemed restless, continuously turning left and right on his seat as though it was unbalanced. He was wearing a face mask with only one string and it flapped open every time he took a deep breath. You could tell something was bothering him.
Few minutes into the ride he asked the lady “what is your name?” to which she replied “why?”. He responded “just sparking a conversation, but I cannot talk to you if you want,” she responds “that’s no way to start a conversation by aggressively asking my name.” He remains quiet and a few moments later says “I have been traveling for five days. The past few weeks have been the worst of my life.” She ignores him and puts on her headphones. He proceeds to ignore her too. However, looking at his red tomato like face, I could see there was a story waiting to be told. There was a soul hurting, a well of information waiting to pour out like pressured water through a fire hose. Observing this interaction reminded me of a lesson I learned in college when I had lunch with a homeless man — everyone just wants a listening ear, even if for a minute.
One day while in college, I found myself rushing to get lunch before my final classes for the day. I decided to go for my usual, a chipotle bowl with steak and guac. While in line, a gentleman who appeared to be homeless walked up and started asking folks for money or if they could buy him lunch. Everyone ignored him. As he got closer to me, I acted as though I was on my phone. He asked if I could buy him lunch. I agreed and he began to tearfully thank me for it. Everyone was watching in shock as I kicked off conversation with him. When I paid for his order, instead of dismissing him, my intuition told me to ask him if he wanted to sit and have lunch with me. He agreed.
We now live in a society where interactions with strangers have become an alien experience we desperately avoid. This is true for those of us who live in dense metropolitan areas like New York City. We have come to consider human connection an inconvenience as we rush through our day.
As we had lunch and started discussing, I learned he was in his 30s and a former teacher. He loved teaching middle schoolers very much but because he had accumulated so much debt over the years and was not being paid enough, he had been evicted from his home and sold his belongings to cover some of the debt. I didn’t want to be invasive and ask how he got into so much debt — he was now in a situation where the debt collector owned all of his possessions. He was living in a shelter and doing many gigs but still not able to afford basic necessities. I listened and assured him that his circumstance was temporary, that like all seasons it too shall pass. We finished lunch and he thanked me for not just getting lunch but for listening to his story. Everyone that week had been ignoring him and not showing any form of human decency because he was homeless and looked disheveled. We parted ways and I never saw him again. I will never forget the look of relief from spending that moment, of being seen and validated. It looked like it meant the world to him. The joyous glitter in his eyes showed that. It is that kind of moment I think the gentleman on the Amtrak train was desperately yearning for — someone to listen and see his humanity.
Life is tough. It is easier if we are kind and compassionate with each other.
We now live in a society where interactions with strangers have become an alien experience we desperately avoid. This is true for those of us who live in dense metropolitan areas like New York City. We have come to consider human connection an inconvenience as we rush through our day. When walking around the city or on the train and a person approaches me, It has become normal for me to act like I do not see them. I pretend to be on the phone. I act as if I don’t hear and I try to look intimidating.
This is especially accurate towards the homeless. I sometimes feel disgusted with myself because I ignore even giving them the basic human decency of looking them in the face and saying no. I am not the only person who is this way. We have come to treat the homeless or any stranger that fits that “look” as a pariah to society and an obstruction to our day. As they navigate subway carts asking for help of some sort, we reduce their humanity and forget that they too have a story. A series of events happened that has led them to that moment. Those series of events are worthy of acknowledgement. Despite what happened to them, they are still showing the will of the human spirit by finding some way to still carry on. That is somehow admirable. They too have a story, waiting for someone to ask, waiting to be told.
And yes one could say they will use the money on drugs — but what are you using it for when you sit down for cocktail hour or hit up your weed man? We all have a fix.
The experience of ignoring a stranger though poignant when talking about the homeless is not just limited to that population. I have found many times on the train where someone was having a breakdown crying and we all acted like we were deaf and gave them no attention. Not even a tissue or “are you okay?.” We simply ignored them and went about our day. I wonder how many lives could have been positively impacted if we had just asked “are you okay?” when we noticed someone looked distressed. I understand the ramifications we are worried about should that person be mentally unstable or become violent towards us. I would argue those scenarios we play in our head might not be as prevalent as we think.
I strongly believe and have made it my religion that connection happens at the intersection of truth and vulnerability. Vulnerability doesn’t always have to be about sharing something about yourself. In my experience, vulnerability also means providing space for another to share. It is recognizing and empathizing with the pain someone might be going through. It is asking someone how they are doing and taking the time to listen. It is as small as offering a stranger tissues as they have a mental breakdown cry session on the train (yes this cry session has happened to me many times — NYC can be tough.)
Life is tough. It is easier if we are kind and compassionate with each other. For two hours, I watched as the guy on the Amtrak looked like he was being suffocated and desperately needed to talk to someone. I watched as he tried to engage eye contact with me but I pretended to be on my phone or looked like I was having a jam session. I paid attention as those around him ignored him. Were we right? We all want to be seen and validated and in that moment I fear we reinforced the message for him that he does not matter. Whatever the hardships, struggles and stories he has to tell are now lost in the abyss of his mind. Everyone wants a listening ear, even for a minute. Sometimes that listening ear could make all the difference in changing that person’s life.