The other night after work, I rode my bike over to Union Market to meet my wife for dinner. After a tasty meal I was putting my bike on the rack to drive home when a young man approached us and asked us for change. He quietly told us he was was not on drugs, holding up his stick-thin arms to show the absence of track marks, but that he was HIV positive. “I’m a good person” he said. We didn’t have any cash but told him we’d be happy to take him where he wanted to get some food. He got in our car, his backpack on his lap, and we set out for McDonalds.
At first we drove in silence, none of us seeming to know what to say. He broke the ice first. “It’s a beautiful night.” “Yes it is” we agreed. I asked him where he was from. He grew up on Duke Street in Alexandria. When he came out, his father kicked him out of the house and he’d been homeless ever since. He apologized for not smelling good but said he hadn’t been able to wash his clothes for a while. He’d been raped at one of the local shelters and so refused to return there. “The shelters are bad places for gay men”, he said. There were some other places he’d heard about that were better for gay men, but he needed an ID, had lost his and, since he collected just a few dollars a day, hadn’t yet saved up the $10 to get it replaced. For now he was staying in a tent under a bridge, “where nobody can find me.”
At McDonalds he ordered two McChicken sandwiches and a Coke for $6.00. It occurred to me that his meal cost a fraction of just one of the items from our dinner at Union Market. I had offered to buy him more, whatever he wanted, but that was all he ordered. It didn’t feel like enough. Wasn’t there something else we could do? He said he could use a clean shirt so we drove to Walmart where he selected a single t-shirt priced at $3.00. “Are you sure you don’t need anything else?” I asked. He was reluctant but eventually said “maybe some socks.” In that particular Walmart, packages of basic socks are one of the few items locked behind glass. Fresh socks are worth the risk of stealing. Not wanting to disturb the employees to unlock the case, he selected a pair in the unlocked “dress” socks section, grey with embroidered orange tigers on them. “I like these colors” he said, “are these okay?” At $1.89, they were the cheapest on the rack. As we walked to the checkout I asked him several times if there wasn’t anything else he needed. We managed to convince him to pick up a bag of Lay’s potato chips, sour cream and onion. “These are my favorite” he said. “Mine too” I told him. The total came to around $8.
In the elevator back to the car he stood next to a man holding a baby. “She has beautiful eyes” he said, “she gets them from you.” They smiled at each other. We drove him back to where we’d met him, with his turn-by-turn directions and a guided tour of the area with information you’d only get from walking a month in his shoes. “Turn here”, he said, “that hotel over there will let me sit for a while on the benches across the street, as long as I don’t disturb their guests.” We pulled the car up to the curb and I turned off the motor. He told of a job opportunity washing dishes that he was hoping to get. “I’m a good person” he said, repeating a phrase he’d used several times since we started talking. “I know you are” I responded, but I doubted hearing it once from me would undo the constant message to the contrary that he must be getting all the time from the world around him. Timidly, tears in his eyes, he asked if he could give us a hug and said “God bless you.” I hugged him, feeling the frail thinness of his chest, my own eyes wet with tears. “I’m already too blessed” I told him, “God’s blessings need to go to you.”
In case you’re thinking “what a nice thing Mark did” please know that’s not my point in writing this. In total, we gave him about $14 in McDonalds and the cheapest clothing money can buy. I’ve spent that much for a few pastries at Boulangerie Christophe. Perhaps you’re thinking “I wonder if he was telling the truth.” In the hardened parts of my heart I had the same thought. At some point during our drive I picked up the $150 Maui Jim sunglasses from the center console and moved them to the compartment in the door. It was almost a reflex, but I was conscious and ashamed of doing it. There was so much I didn’t do. I briefly considered bringing him back to our apartment so he could have a shower, wash his clothes, sleep on our couch instead of his tent under a bridge, but we didn’t.
A good story will take the reader on a journey, leaving them at a different, even better place than before. I don’t know how to do that here. Right before he got out of the car, I told him about the Georgetown Sunday Dinners. He asked me to write down the address and time, which I did, on the back of the receipt from Walmart, after I tore off the bottom that showed the last four digits of our credit card. Another conscious reflex?
He is a beautiful human being, cast aside by his family, pushed to the margins and beyond by the kind of misfortune most of us can only imagine. The sparse generosity of the people he meets who give him a dollar here, some loose change there, along with some public assistance, is enough to keep him from starving to death and to address his basic medical needs. That is perhaps a lot, compared to many parts of the world, but it is a huge contrast to the life I am privileged to enjoy, living just a few miles from where he sleeps under a bridge. I hope he comes to the GSD so I can meet him again. He’s such a good person. I hope you get to meet him someday too.