This is not my photo nor a photo of the person mentioned in this post. This free image was found here.
"The eye is the lamp of the body.”
So today I was working at my second job; it’s part-time and just a few hours a week. It's at a shelter for people—women and their children, mostly—that are in transition. I find it rewarding on many levels. And I only mention this because it is pertinent to this story. Anyhow, today I was working a full shift and was the only one in the kitchen. I really enjoy working alone in a kitchen.
Anyhow, after checking the resident's fridge in the morning I saw there were some leftover wings from last night's dinner. Knowing no one would eat them, and rather than throw them in the trash, I put them in a small pot along with a few vegetable scraps, and covered them with cold water. After bringing the pot to a boil, I skimmed the liquid's surface, and then lowered the heat to a simmer. Soon, the kitchen was filled with the intoxicating aroma of chicken stock. Even though I am primarily a vegetarian these days I still love the smell of stock cooking on the stove. It is, in many ways, the foundation to cooking. And as I cut and trimmed chicken quarters for roast chicken for dinner this evening I added the scraps to the pot as well.
After a few hours, when the stock was sufficiently cooked, I strained it, reserving the rich broth and discarding the skin, bones, and other scraps in the trash. Not wanting the garbage to leak any residual liquid I took it to the dumpster, which is just outside the kitchen door. The dumpster has two doors; one on each side of it. When I went out I immediately felt the hot summer afternoon sun. And holding the sloppy, steaming bag in one hand, I flung open the waist-high door with the other. And when I did there was a man leaning halfway in the hot smelly dumpster on this hot Sunday afternoon. He stood up and our eyes locked. I'm not sure who was more surprised. It was odd. Two men—two humans—staring at each other through opposite sides of a dumpster. His eye's, so soulful, pierced my soul. He was elderly and looked like he has been through a lot. Hi, was all my surprised brain could muster. I'm not sure what he was searching for, maybe cans or clothes, but I set the steamy bag of chicken off to the side so he could keep searching if he wanted.
As I walked the few feet back to the kitchen door I wondered who he was. How did his life’s journey result to him searching through dumpsters in the hot sun. I wondered his story, but knew I wouldn't ask him. And then I reached for my wallet. Looking in it I saw I had a $10, a $5, and a couple singles. I grabbed the two singles and turned back. He looked nervous when he saw me re-approach. Maybe he thought I was going to yell at him or take a swing at him; who knows what he's seen. I held out my hand and offered the two dollars, “Here you go, man,” was what I said. Hesitantly, he took the money and said thank you. That was the extent of our conversation.
Some of you are likely thinking one of two things as you read this. You may be thinking that I am gullible or even stupid for offering money to people when I work so very hard for it. Well I’m sure I have been scammed in the past, but mostly no. I generally do not give people money who are drunk, high, or just seem like lairs. And this guy didn’t ask for money, I offered it. The look in his eyes truly did move me...a quiet guy old enough to be someone’s grampa rummaging through garbage.
The other thing is that you may think I am being self-righteous often writing on this blog about how I sometimes offer the homeless cash. My response is...um, no I don’t think so. Firstly, these stories have to come out of me, they simply do. And this blog is a good platform for it. If you know anything about me you know that I have a soft spot for the homeless. And if you recall earlier in this post I said straight out how much money was in my wallet and how much I gave him. Me losing two dollars and him gaining it probably makes a bigger impact in his life than mine. And If I was truly the man of faith that I claim to be I would have given him everything I had. But I still can’t get past that surprised and sad look on his face when I first flung open the dumpster door...eyes that have seen a lot in this world.
About ten years ago I bought a small postcard from an artist/urban activist in Toronto. On the card is a night-time photo of a person sleeping in a sort of self-built cardboard igloo. It was dark, snowy, and blustery; snow was pushed right up the sides of make-shift sleeping quarters. And the caption reads, “A person cannot be lazy or stupid to survive life on the street.” And this is what I was thinking about as I pedaled and coasted home on a warm summer’s eve.