I have a lot to tell you about this past Easter weekend; but it would be stupid of me not to share this story of his first (read it until the end, it's long; but it's worth the time I promise!):
Except for being Good Friday, April 6th 2012 had no strange or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary significance. I usually eat lunch at home but on this day, needed to get back to the office to spend some time wrapping things up after a busier morning. I had not yet decided where I’d buy lunch so I decided to pull off of 9th Street in front of my favorite bike shop to see if the owner was recovering from a nasty crash a few weeks ago.
As I dismounted, I heard an, “Excuse me, sir.” Like a lot of business districts surrounding college campuses, the area around Duke is no stranger to this phrase; although the “excuse me” and “sir” are sometimes offered as a “HEY MAN, HEY!” , it could be interpreted to mean a variety of things, such as:
“Can I have some money.”
“Umm, I’m not exactly twenty-one years old, but could you buy me some beer?”
“Hey, I need some change to go buy some booze.”
Generally, if I can look this person in the eye and tell if they’ve given me an honest request, I may oblige with at least an offer of food – I don’t typically carry cash in our increasingly electronic world. This one sounded different, though, and as I looked up I saw about a six-foot-two young black man standing in the parking lot. He was clean but dressed somewhat messily, more like a hipster than a beggar. He wore tight black leggings and a tightly-cropped canvas jacket. His huge hands sported long, false day-glo fingernails, one of which had been further accessorized to include the painted face of a cat, complete with whiskers. The top of his head held short, orange-dyed hair that completed the look.
He was effeminate in his manner despite his size, but not altogether out of place in Durham. Without a conversation I would have thought he was just another stereotypical artsy gay kid in the theater or dance fields. In fact, he kind of looked like a male ballerina that purposely forgot to take off his costume.
“Sir, umm, I’m trying to collect a little bit of money so I can get a room for the night. I need to get ten dollars together.”
I wasn’t surprised, but responded anyways. “Well, I can’t give you any money but I’ll buy you lunch. Wait here a minute and I’ll be right out and we’ll go get you something.” He nodded and I turned back around.
I went inside the bike shop, said “hi” to Colin, and was back out in a few minutes. As I swung the shop door open I was surprised that he was still in the same spot, between Tip Top Cycles and the Kinko’s. Surprised because at least 80% of the time I pose this question to someone, they turn me down and/or walk on along.
“OK, what do you feel like eating?” I asked, as I scanned along the streetscape. “Would you like tacos, or a bagel, maybe a sandwich from Subway…”
“Subway sounds good!” he said, with a lighter manner. He was a bit ragged, but showed his youth with bright eyes and white teeth.
We crossed the busy lunch-time traffic and stepped into the mostly empty Subway restaurant. This, again, was uncommon. Typically if I offer to buy someone lunch they won’t move from their spot, so I’ll get them something and bring it back outside. It’s generally a cold, quick transaction (I’m not sure what that says about my character, but more on that later). Anyways, I asked him to order, which he did, requesting a foot-long chicken sub. I followed and then paid the girl making the sandwich. I asked for mine to go but when I picked up the take-out bag, something stopped me from rushing off. Over the past few days I’ve had a cold and initially just wanted to take my sandwich, go back to my office, and eat in silence – but today that course didn’t seem right.
I picked a table to sit my sandwich at while he got his drink from the soda fountain. He sat down and thanked me again, and I started to respond but he said, “Oh, hold on a minute,” and bowed his head to pray. He mumbled his prayer softly as I watched, shocked unexpectedly, again. He looked back up, then commenced to hungrily, angrily eat this chicken sandwich as sauce poured out, dripping on his hands and plate.
He gulped huge mouthfuls of soda in between bites, but then apologized for his manners. I said, no, no, that’s not necessary, eat.”
It was an uncomfortable exchange, mostly for me. This man was clearly hungry, and not the kind of hungry that your average person experiences. We exaggerate our “starvation” at the end of a day, when it’s been, at most, four to five hours since our last meal. To put it in perspective, he ate with a vigor that I’ve only ever seen matched by dogs. As he was half-finished with chewing, I said, “So, where are you from?”
“Well, I’m from Dallas, Texas, but I came up here to see my dad, he’s a minister, but he kicked me out ‘cause I’m, well, gay. That was a few months ago. I asked you for money because I need to find a room for the night so I don’t have to sleep outside again.”
Turns out, he had indeed slept outside, and as he described where he slept I knew exactly where he was talking about. And as he continued to speak I noticed that his arms were covered with goose bumps. It had been cold for April the past two nights and it was obvious he had a chill he couldn’t shake. Camping is not “camping” when you have no other indoor options.
As his eating slowed a little, the conversation picked up to a stream-of-consciousness sharing the likes of which I’d never heard from any close friend or family member, let alone a stranger from the street. I listened intently as he poured out his life for me. I couldn’t turn away. It turns out that in this young man is essentially homeless right now. He’s HIV positive but can’t get any medicine unless he gets sick enough to need the services of an Emergency Room, and only then because they have to take him in. He’s trying to get food stamps but since he doesn’t have an address there’s a long delay in the process. He’s found some odd jobs here and there, and some guys that work in the back of shops let him wash up occasionally, and keep a few extra articles of clothing under shelves or near back doors.
He told me he had stayed as long as he could at a shelter but didn’t have any mental illness or substance abuse problems, so they kicked him out. He’s tried getting support from his family but they wouldn’t have him back. He’s sent out resumes and applied for as many jobs as he can, but without a phone (let alone an apartment which might contain a telephone) there’s no way he could receive a call back. He wants a job, wants to provide for himself, but just can’t get out of his situation.
During the course of his conversation, it came up that this man’s name is Darren, and he’s twenty-two years old. Darren graduated high school and enjoyed two years of college before he was unable to continue due to lack of money. He’s an amateur musician and dancer (I got one stereotypical guess right). Darren was able to make it through the winter sleeping on someone’s floor, but that friendship evaporated when this person beat him and kicked him out. The mild spring thus far has been kind to him, but because he has HIV, staying out in the elements is pretty bad for his health. The body can’t fight a two-front war with external and internal enemies. He’s been trespassed from a few vacant buildings during the winter, just trying to stay warm, and has a few petty criminal charges on his record to show for it. He refused to lie about having a drug problem just to get to stay in a shelter for abusers, so instead he opted for the outdoors. He also wasn’t quite sure to make of his own flamboyance – whether he should bottle it for the sake of avoiding the bullying and, or be as weird as he wanted to just to keep some semblance of his own humanity alive.
This story continued for an hour. Remarkably, though, this was not a sob story. This was not a rehearsed, pitiful attempt for me to offer him charity. This guy told me this whole story, eating his sandwich, as if we were two friends just having lunch together and he was just being honest about how the last few months of his life had been. I could tell from the way he gushed, though, that he was lonely and isolated. He told me as much. He said he has only three real friends here. Darren likes people, likes talking to people, and misses human interaction. He said he hates asking for money, hates asking for food because it makes him feel like an outcast, less than human. Most of all, he was scared that he would die on the street, alone. It takes real courage for one man to tell another all of this. Gay or straight doesn’t matter if you can’t eat. It’s humbling, humiliating, and miserable to have to look another man in the eye and ask for a hand up. I could tell that joblessness and homelessness in someone like Darren were a smack in the face to his pride.
“So, that’s what it is.”, he said. I didn’t know what to say. Literally, I had no thought in my head that I could filter into words to share my overwhelming sense of helplessness. I said as much to him. I also noticed that I had not touched my sandwich, not even to unwrap it. I hadn’t even been able to offer my name at this point.
“I know,” said Darren, “no one knows what to say.”
I said I wanted to help him. He told me flat out that if he could get $40 together, then he could get a room for a month from a friend of a friend, and that he could then get his food stamps, pick up some work, and maybe even get something steady, even if it was just doing construction cleanup, or at a restaurant, or anything else he could find. He also said that he had heard about the American Dance Festival (an annual Durham event), and that next year he’d attend the open tryouts.
To be honest, on the surface, Darren and I couldn’t be more different. Luckily though, we shared a conversation that showed us that we’re really not that different. In fact, Darren is no different from any other person I might have encountered on Friday, April 6th, or any previous homeless man I’ve offered to buy lunch for. The things, though, that make Darren special, were pronounced. Here was a young man, clearly in the midst of one of the hardest times of his life, clearly striving to get out of a huge hole. He was kicked aside by those who are supposed to love and care for him the most. Darren shared with me that he has made awful, awful mistakes in his life, but he’s trying to be a good Christian. He wants to be a minister, and even shared with me that he had an epiphany and that he is called to this.
Darren shared a deep and profound understanding of the human condition, faith, and hope. At one point told me, “I think God has put me in this place so that I’ll know what it’s like down here. I think he’s showing me what I have to do to make a life for myself. I’m looking for an angel, really. I’m praying so hard, and I know that when I make it out and make a successful life for myself, I will be able to thank God and tell people. That this will keep me humble so that I can then tell them that He did all of this. When I make it out, I promise that I’ll help other people out.”
He wasn’t kidding either. You could see it in his eyes. Darren is rightly frustrated with the present, but excited about what he will do with the life he has remaining. No, Darren and I may not be different, but Darren is a stronger person than I am. He’s probably a better man than I am.
I gave him my uneaten sandwich. I told him that I’d give him $40. Even if he had been lying (which he wasn’t), his story was worth $40. $40 is a lot of money to me, but it’s a lot more to Darren. We stepped next door to an ATM, and he waited patiently out by the curb. I didn’t have to ask him to pay this favor forward, because I know that he will. He thanked me not with a profuse, exaggerated repetition of “thank you,” but with a sincere look in my eye and a smile. He even came in for an awkward, sideways man-hug. I accepted.
I gave him my phone number and told him that if he got some job interviews lined up, I’d get him some decent clothes. He agreed that if I did that, he’d cut his hair and dye it back to get rid of the orange, and take off the fake fingernails. I thought that was a good idea.
As I watched the sun rise on Easter morning, standing in a graveyard with two hundred-odd folks, I wondered if he had indeed found a room for a month. My fingers and toes were cold, and I hoped they weren’t as cold as Darren’s. My problems are, in the pop culture parlance, ‘White People Problems.” I have debts to pay, but people will loan me money to do what I want with it. Occasionally my lawnmower won’t start. I (and everyone else) pay a hefty premium to see a doctor, but we have access to great medical care. But I have never once in my life had to worry about when my next meal will come, or when someone might beat me up in the middle of the night and steal my money.
This Easter season, think about Darren, but don’t pity him. I’m not suggesting that you go along handing out money to anyone who asks for it, but when you see a stranger, have a conversation. It’ll probably be interesting, if not fun. Get to know who is honest and who’s a crook. Be a steward of your neighbor. Get to know your community, and all of it. You don’t need money to share your humanity. Remember that the Darrens of the world are the “meek.” Should they one day inherit the Earth, it sure would be nice to know them.