We have a customer who has been coming in on a regular basis for the past two years. He’s rides his bike usually, and is just one of those guys who is always down on his luck. When he does get a job, it’s as a hired hand doing painting, tile work, or just helping out a contractor. But the job gets finished, he gets paid, and he’s out looking for another job.
He lives on the opposite side of town from our restaurant in a small, run-down house. He keeps the yard clean, though, and grows a spectacular vegetable garden. Not for fun, of course, but for food. Corn, zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes, and tons of squash. He brought me some veggies once, and I traded him for a slice of pizza and a beer. I used the squash to make my famous soup, remember?
Last Christmas Eve, he brought in the daughter of a friend just so she could see our tree with its spinning disco balls. I treated them both to hot chocolate and he thanked me later, saying that his friend didn’t have much money and this little girl had never had hot chocolate before.
He’s always smiling, even when times are rough, and has a really positive attitude. He loves our pizza, and if he’s working steadily and has some money in his pocket, he’ll come in for our $6 dollar lunch special (usually on a Sunday so that he can watch some football). A foot-long slice of gourmet pizza, a fresh salad, and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. We’ll talk sports, or about his family, and I’ve gotten to know him fairly well.
We hadn’t seen him in awhile, and when he showed his face yesterday both Whitey and I greeted him as if he were an old friend. He bought a lunch special, and sat down near the Christmas tree.
I went over to talk with him, and asked how he was. He smiled and said, “Could be better, but I’ve got a little money in my pocket and a hot lunch to look forward to. I’m just taking it day by day.”
He looked skinny, and when I said so he laughed and said “That’s what being homeless in Baker City will do to ya. At least walking around so much has some benefits.”
“What happened to your house?” I asked. He explained that he had been renting, and the owner sold it. He didn’t have enough money to find another place to live, what with deposits and first and last month rent due up front. So he was living in a shed somewhere south of town, and for heat he had a small fire pit that he had dug in the dirt.
We’ve been experiencing below-zero temperatures, and the thought of sleeping in a shed with only a small fire to keep warm made me feel terrible for him.
When I asked him where his bike was, he said that he had run out of money, so he sold it for $75.
“I don’t mind walking,” he said. “And a guy I know is going to haul down a trailer from Sumpter sometime in the next couple of weeks that he said I could use until I get on my feet again. We’re gonna park it a few miles out of town and I’ll just hunker down for the winter. People will be building again in the spring and I’ll find work.”
His lunch arrived, and so I got back to work. As I stood behind the counter, I watched as he slowly ate his lunch while reading a paperback Science Fiction novel, taking small sips of his beer. He had a large backpack, probably filled with basic survival things and extra clothes.
I’m a realistic person. I’m not going to invite him to move in with me. But yet I felt like I had to do some small act, something of compassion for this guy.
I left and went home, picked up my bike, took it to get the tires inflated, and brought it back to work. I set it outside for him and when he left, told him to take it. He said no, and then realized that he could probably use a bike, so he then said that he’d pay me for it someday.
“Nope,” I said. “Consider it a Christmas present. You can use it, sell it, whatever. It makes me feel better, so I’m actually being selfish.”
I can’t imagine how awful it would be to be homeless. Jobless. No friends or family to turn to. I have a modest home with a warm bed and all the food I can eat. I have dozens of friends, lots of family, tons of love at every turn. I have clean water, great health, transportation, and want for nothing. I want for nothing. I have it all.
This guy isn’t stupid. He’s well-read, graduated from school, is kind and hard-working. He’s just down-trodden. Any one of us could end up like this.
Sometimes it takes seeing the other side to appreciate how many simple blessings we have in our everyday lives.