To Be Present
I was standing outside in the rain waiting for students that I knew weren’t going to show up. It was a wet, bleak holiday. The only people on the streets were those who had no other choice: gym clothing clad individuals walking their bejeweled dogs that had to pee and the homeless, those who had no other place to go.
He walked by me. He had a large backpack and the tired step of one who doesn’t have home in sight. His hair was reminiscent of that of Bozo the Clown with reddish blonde tufts sticking up on both sides of his head. He had bright blue eyes that were set in a tanned face worn with worry and manual labor.
I continued to stand under the awning, pretending to look busy. As an activity leader, I had to wait for the supposed students that were interested in going to the Braves game. I knew that nobody was going to be interested, but I still had to show up and wait. More people passed by. I watched a group of men huddled under an awning across the street from me. A car stopped, and they went up to the window, returning with white boxes that I can only assume were filled with food. I wondered at the life they led. Atlanta is not kind to the unfortunate. Downtown is filled with signs that say “no public restrooms” and “no loitering”. The streets smell like urine, and the empty eyes of living ghosts of men and women follow you. I began to recognize the people who walked by me. With everything wet, there wasn’t really anything to do other than walk.
I saw him again. We made eye contact, and he stopped.
“You’re just standin’ there like a statue. You’ve been like that for what, an hour?”
“Well, I think it has been closer to 15 minutes. I’m here for my job. I’m waiting for students that probably aren’t going to show up.”
He opened a package of Oreos and offered me one. I accepted. We began to talk in that rambling way that happens when two people have nowhere to go and nothing in particular to say. We talked about his previous work as a massage therapist. He lamented that he can no longer work in massage therapy because of his hands. He showed me the tattoo on his arm, a blood-red heart with his girlfriend’s name above it. He asked me about school and work. He told stories of the streets.
“Ya know, I gotta job interview but I ain’t got any more minutes because all those places keep callin’ me. I dunno what I’m gonna wear. These are all the clothes I got and I can’t take a shower nowhere either. The most I get is those moist towelettes. And man, I needa haircut too.”
“Yeah, that must be rough. I didn’t realize until recently that there aren’t even public restrooms around here.”
“Oh yeah, all these places won’t letcha in unless you a payin’ customer. My buddy one time, in New York City, he got so mad, he just pulled his pants down and took a **** in the subway station. He got five years for that.”
We continued chatting until he stopped suddenly and looked at me, “Ya know, most people wouldna even gave me the time a day and here you are talkin’ to me. I appreciate that. I’m David by the way.”
David and I chatted a bit more and then went our separate ways. I walked away, thinking. The day had reminded me of how fortunate I am, but his appreciation for our conversation had really struck me. How many times do I walk through downtown blind to those around me? Sometimes I am so focused on going and arriving and leaving and accomplishing, I don’t even notice my surroundings. David taught me an important lesson that day.
Be present. Stop and listen occasionally.