Below is the USS Midway aircraft carrier docked as a museum ship in San Diego. It's a fascinating tour. It was around the docks where my story begins ...
As I was meandering around the shore and photographing boats and birds a couple of days before Christmas, I happened upon an elderly, homeless man. Something drew me to him. I can't really explain it. Never quite experienced something like it before.
He was down by the harbor sitting on a cement half wall. I sat next to him and began asking him how long he had been on the streets and what his story was. He's been in San Diego for 41 days and most of it was spent in the hospital following a stroke. He used his fingers to count the days. He had come out from North Carolina where he'd worked in the timber industry, but after some timber contracts weren't renewed, he lost his job. He also had been a cook for many years. He told me he's been homeless for about 4 years and later in the conversation it was made clear that he's NOT an alcoholic or a drinker at all.
He came out to San Diego to work on a fishing boat, but had a stroke instead. The job was filled when he got out of the hospital. He told me where he makes his bed at night and how he uses a tarp and blanket. He said he can deal with the cold, but it was the hunger that was really hard.
He said it was embarrassing to sit with a sign begging for money. He'd made 25 cents by the time I talked with him. It was two o'clock in the afternoon. The other day he had $20 accumulated and some skateboarders rode by and stole his cup.
He doesn't have any teeth so eating is hard for him. Then he added that after his stroke the doctors found out he has prostate cancer. He didn't seem to understand the impact of his illness. He said it answered why he was losing weight. But he wasn't upset. He was matter of fact like someone responding to a parking ticket. He told me people give him food sometimes and get upset with him when he can't eat it - like apples and chips. He said he ate chips the other day that cut his gums all up, yet if he turns down what people offer they chastise him and tell him he must not be very hungry. He said he guesses they figure someone hungry should have no choice. Someone gave him very spicy food the other day that made him sick because his stomach can't take it. He said he'd rather go hungry than eat something that's going to make his stomach hurt worse.
He said he doesn't make 'friends' with the others on the street because they stab him in the back and want money for booze. He proudly mentioned being Cheyenne and how his grandmother was at the Sand Creek massacre. People don't look him in the eyes and few ever talk to him. I normally don't carry cash and seldom give homeless money because I feel like it isn't truly helping them ... but this guy was different.
I dug out a $5 bill and 4 one dollar bills. I knew that he would buy a meal with it - something he could eat and would like. It was money that would make a difference. It didn't have to be money that would be a solution -- just $ that would make a difference was enough. I'd never looked at it quite that way before. The whole experience showed me a side to the homeless I'd not understood or encountered before. I've met homeless who want to be homeless and actually enjoy the culture of living on the street. Others are running scams or are some kind of addict or mentally ill. This man, for whatever series of events in his life that led him there, was different. Maybe a lot of others are different too. Hmmm..
The interesting and uplifting thing was how he was dealing with everything. He had no bitterness. He was full of God and faith. His tone, even when mentioning the hardship and how people treated him badly, was not touched with resentment. There was forgiveness in his voice. Real forgiveness. He kept saying he was okay and it wasn't all bad. He wasn't out to hurt anyone. He wasn't angry or self absorbed. He was out there with his sign asking for money for food because he saw no other way and yet he was full of forgiveness about his situation and about the people around him who were not going to help. Even when I handed him the little bit of money, he looked me in the eyes and asked, "Don't you need that?" I replied, "Not as much as you do." Only then did he reach for it. His body visibly seemed to relax. I could see relief come over him because he knew he was going to eat that day. He had missed getting a meal the day before.
As I left him, he thanked me for talking to him. He was also grateful for the money. I was left having learned about a life in someone else's shoes - someone I could have easily walked past without ever knowing. I felt grateful for the lessons and the experience.
This blog entry is from an email I wrote to a friend. I decided it was worth sharing here because it's a story about a homeless man who showed me the real spirit of Christmas ...
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