The Man said, “How are you today?” as he stood before our booth at McDonald’s.
At the time, I didn’t even know he was homeless. “Good,” I said, pleasantly returning his inquiry. The Man was polite enough, albeit his clothes a bit dirty and worn. Why would I have thought he was homeless as I sat there in my own ripped blue jeans, spattered with paint?
“Would you happen to have any change so that I might buy something to eat?” asked The Man.
Jesus! I should have seen this coming a mile away, I thought to myself.
“No, sorry, I don’t have any change.” I said sheepishly shrugging my shoulders, hands out, palms up, arms slightly raised to just below shoulder height. Completely and obviously lying. Who the hell doesn’t have change when your eating at McDonald’s? I know they take credit and debit cards now, but most, I would think, still use cash. Yup. No change here, bum. Beat it. I’ve been conditioned to respond like this from countless solicitations on New York City subway platforms and streets by clearly insane people, stinking of urine and cradling what was left of their 5th of whiskey. Don’t talk to strangers, right?
The place wasn’t busy. I sat there with my son on my lap waiting for him to finish the late lunch we started well past the rush an hour ago. A 4-year old can spend an eternity eating lunch at McDonald’s and 5 minutes doing the same at home. He can also ignore everything you say, and utter the most inappropriate things at other times. I was certain this was one of those times, and I had no way of preventing it. To my surprise, Brendan said nothing. He whispered a few things to me about The Man — about, what, specifically, I have no idea. I was too busy trying to redirect his attention.
The Man had on dress shoes, multiple layers of unmatched clothing and carried a small duffel bag. The Man clutched a dollar bill and stared blankly out across the restaurant. I couldn’t look at him, but stole glances. He looked to have a black and blue left eye and was missing some front teeth. An unsettled feeling washed over me as I sat there unable to remove myself from the situation. My son returned to playing with his Happy Meal toy and slowly picked at his french-fries.
A woman approached The Man and spoke to him in a kind manner, her voice lowered so as to respect his privacy and dignity. I realized she was probably telling him where he could find shelter or a soup kitchen as I heard street directions and landmarks being mentioned. The look on her face was clearly one of compassion and not pity. Guilt and shame washed over me as I watched The Man look up at this woman, clearly taking in this information.
As she left, The Man saw me looking in his direction. “I used to live with my mother,” he began. “But she was evicted. Kenya, where I am from, turned violent after the elections. Now I have nowhere. I don’t know if I will see my mother again. I thought she would return. I used to live with her, you see.”
His rambling was incoherent, and what all of it was true or not true, I have no idea. The story didn’t matter. I sat there pinned by my son, still on my lap, forced to consider this situation that so many of us would rather ignore and pretend doesn’t exist. “I’m sorry,” I replied sincerely, but having no idea what to say, “that’s a difficult situation.”
“It is,” he said.
I didn’t know whether or not he was surprised that I was speaking to him in a rather conversational tone. As I felt the 30 or so guilty dollars bulging in my pocket, I figured that he knew my line about having no change was complete bullshit.
The Man and I sat there for an eternal minute, maybe two, maybe more, in awkward silence, as my son happily enjoyed his All-American McDonald’s experience. Glancing at he Man every now and then, my guilt of not engaging him lifted when Brendan ask me to play with his Happy Meal toy with him.
I started floating the idea that we should get going soon — both for sake of my 4-year old, who needs notice that we’re going to leave, and the Man, lest he think we were going to be available for conversation any longer. When I finally told Brendan it was time to go, I was glad he was agreeable. What the hell was my problem? Why did I really care if the Man talked to me — or to us? Why did I want to remove myself from this situation so badly? Why are some of us, like the lady who had just talked to the man, able to deal with situations like this while most of us cannot.
Then I realized I had a dilemma.
“Brendan. Are you going to eat the rest of your french fries? Do want to bring them with you?”
“No,” no he quickly responded.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
I had no choice. I had to offer the left over french fries to The Man. Telling a lie about having extra change was apparently not beneath me, but at least I wasn’t as low as throwing out food in front him. How ridiculously noble of me.
“Excuse me, sir?” I approached him.
“Yes?” He looked up.
“Would you like the rest of these french fries?” Then I realized they were not mine to offer. “Brendan, that’s OK if give the rest of your french fries to this man, right?” Oh, please, please, say “yes.” 4-year olds have a way of being possessive of their things — even their garbage.
“Yes,” said Brendan to my relief.
The expression of gratitude on The Man’s face as he looked directly at Brendan was worth a thousand words. “Thank you” he said, “Thank you.” Smiling at him, he took a bite of a french fry. “These are good, aren’t they?”
Brendan nodded and smiled shyly.
“Come on buddy,” I said, ushering him to the exit. “Good luck to you,” I said to the man.
He smiled and nodded gratefully. We left McDonald’s and Brendan’s questions began.
“Why we give that man my old french fries?”
“Because he was hungry and has nothing to eat.”
I took the opportunity to tell him that The Man had no place to go. No family. No home. That there were people in this world like that. And, that it was very, very nice that he gave him the french fries he wasn’t going to eat.
Brendan understood completely. A 4-year old identifies with those most basic of human needs.
Me, I drove us to our warm home and thought about The Man. I thought about how far from being a decent fellow human I felt. I knew what I should have done. I should have at least bought him some damn lunch! Would it kill me to spend five bucks on a #4 with a Coke or maybe a warm coffee? No. Instead of that, I had to leave it up to my 4-year old son to leave the man left over french fries.