I can still remember so very vividly this difficult but meaningful chance encounter one evening in downtown Savannah years ago.
Savannah’s Broughton Street bustles with activity this past Friday night, even for a warm and gorgeous early spring evening. I suppose Broughton is as close as my quirky, Midnight City gets to having a normal Main Street, as the historic district snakes around twenty-two breathtakingly beautiful squares. (Savannah’s downtown area is unique and hard to describe–come visit us to see what I mean.)
My friend Robert and I venture to the Crystal Beer Parlor, share joyful banter with lovely Hostess Fifi, meet good buddies, consume delicious and perfectly prepared ribeye steak. Friday night joy. Next, Broughton Street Market and dream-laden lottery tickets. Walking toward my car. Traverse past hip young couples pushing into dance clubs; midde-agers brandishing bags with Paula Deen leftovers; older folks leaving Savannah Music Festival venues; SCAD kids with blue hair waving in the breeze. Packed, noisy sidewalks. All well. Very well. Blessed.
Then fate interrupts–as she often does.
They sit on the sidewalk. No sprawl. As if dumped there. Three young men, in their early twenties. Two dogs. Man and pet, dirty, smelly, retched. Outcasts from society. A block from McDonald’s.
I live downtown and have grown immune to the homeless, the beggars, the street people. They merge and melt into the old bricks, the azaleas, the wooden benches. So what if there is an occasional grocery cart on its side in the shadows? No big deal. It happens.
But then the soiled speak.
“Can you guys help us out? We’re hungry.” Honesty makes me tell you my reaction: No Reaction. Walking on. Past the dirty ones.
Then Robert turns, and says, “I can’t give you money, but I can buy you some food.”
Why do I hang out with people like Robert? It’s so much easier to keep walking. Walking past. Walking toward. Past what I don’t want to see, acknowledge. Walking toward the known, the comfortable.
“What are you doing?” I quietly ask Robert, a bit frustrated.
“Getting them something to eat,” he says matter-of-factly.
I try but can’t think of a real reason to stop this interruption of my previously perfect night.
Too late, already inside McDonald’s, I remember a possible reason to have kept walking, a religious reason even: didn’t Jesus say that we would always have the poor with us?
But Robert, reasonless, places the order.
Five minutes later, with a bag of burgers and a tray of dollar menu sweet teas, we walk back toward the vagabonds. One young guy, with his mouth inexplicably sucking on the side of a smoking soda can, with pierced nose tattooed in triplicate black dots along the bridge, stands up in dryrotted pants that touch bony, bare knees. Drunk. Or high. Or both.
I hold out the bag of burgers. Away from my body, and toward his. Embarrassed. He reaches towards the food and plops back down.
Another, apparently the leader and spokesperson, looks up at me and says, “Man, you guys are beautiful. I gotta stand up and thank you. That’s a cool jacket.”
I want to be anywhere, anywhere but here.
He starts to stand, and then reaches out to hug me, drunkenly. But pauses, perhaps sensing my hesitancy.
I then see his eyes.
And my safe Savannah world shatters.
For his eyes are the eyes of a real boy. A boy with a mama and a daddy somewhere. A boy who used to be a baby.
“Where are you guys from?” I ask, shakily, terrified but now connected. Joined. Level.
“San Francisco, long way from home,” he replies.
And then my knowing comes: his eyes could be the eyes of my daughters. The eyes of my grandchildren.
Without thinking, I reach out and touch his scraggly face and hold it for a moment. I see him. Time freezes. I really see him. He sees me, I think.
“If this was reversed, I’d do this for you, man,” he says haltingly, taking his place back down on the sidewalk, back down to his low place.
Robert and I walk away.
Less than two blocks later, I feel tears on my face.