Yesterday I walked to the local co-op, Arizmendi, for a loaf of sesame bread. A young man was sitting in front of the store selling “The Oakland Post” in a spot usually taken by an older man selling “Street Spirit.” When the young man opened his mouth I noticed his disintegrating, pointed teeth. He was so thin in jeans and a sweatshirt. I admit I felt revulsion and pity rather than empathy. What went through my mind semi-consciously was should I give him some money (out of a feeling of guilt) or pretend he’s not there. I ashamedly chose the latter and went into the store.
When I left I drank my coffee at the outdoor table. The young man was talking with two other store patrons at other tables. As they discussed political issues, I could see he was clearly intelligent and articulate. My feelings shifted. He started to become more human to me. He went from someone I subtly, but self-consciously, shunned to someone I understood. He went from a street beggar to a man in need. At one moment I saw him as a pitiful person whose situation made me have to decide in a guilty split-second whether or not giving money to him would “reinforce his behavior.” The next moment he had become a human being who was simply looking for a bit of help in the only way he could.
I now wanted to help him, but I had charged my purchase and had no cash. I was planning to go to Trader Joe’s across the street anyway. I told him I was going over there and asked if he wanted a sandwich. “Yes, no tomatoes,” he replied. His comment may have humanized him to me even more than anything else. Once I could see he was just a guy with likes and dislikes, preferences and tastes, another superficial layer of separation I had created between us vanished.
I went to the store and returned with the food. I explained, “There were no regular sandwiches so I got you a wrap.” He thanked me. Then I walked home.
Last night I saw a young man on “America’s Got Talent” who performed a phenomenal dance. He had been living on the streets for two years. He was so passionate about dance that he was only surviving with tips he collected performing on the street. This guy really moved the judges, the audience and me.
It’s only today that I realize the two guys are not all that different from each other. Both survived with a bit of help from the community around them—it’s just that one got the lucky break that millions of others won’t.
I learned in my mind a long time ago that there’s no place for judgment. I’m still working on teaching that lesson to my heart.