Today I sat on a bench in Central square with a gentleman while I ate lunch. I sat down after seeing the bench was unoccupied, and he was standing nearby. He seemed to be watching over his things which were propped up on a metal thing in the sidewalk and watching passersby who he seemed to find amusing. He then sat down with me and started eating his bag of Fritos. I said hello, and he responded in kind. He then peered at my food and asked where I got it. I told him, Life Alive- a couple of blocks away. ‘It is good!” He asked how much it was and I responded with ‘Nine bucks.” He said he prefers the eight dollar sandwiches nearby. He asked if it was organic, and then went on to tell me that the only thing he can’t eat is brewer’s yeast. We sat in silence for some time and I asked whether he was allergic to it. The brewer’s yeast, that is.
He said it has something to do with hypoglycemia, low blood pressure and low tolerance. Low tolerance to what I am not sure. But I did feel kind of strange sitting there eating this delicious healthy meal while he ate his Fritos. I got the feeling that if he had the money he would choose to eat more of a healthy meal as well. I scraped up the last bits of broccoli and carrots and he fished out the last bits of Fritos out of his bag.
As I sat there I thought about the food issues that were so apparent in that interaction. Perhaps the man I sat next to on the bench did have the money to buy himself a healthy lunch- who am I to judge? I don’t think so though. Maybe he would have used the money in a different way if he did have the money- isn’t that what everyone always thinks- if you give money to a homeless person they will just buy alcohol with it.
Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.
And why did I choose not to give him some money to get himself something good to eat? I felt guilty but I did not act. Why?
I suppose I justified it by thinking about all the myriad of homeless people who are out there who I can’t feed. Who will go hungry. And how will helping this one person do any good?
That is such a silly justification because it would make that one person’s day much better. To be treated well, to have some good food to nourish himself.
Afterwards, I went back into my workshop at NuVu Innovation school (awesome- one of the next few posts will be about that). We learned about some of their amazing projects. And you know what? Many of the projects that their students do are about making one person’s life better. They make a big difference in one person’s life. That made me really think about my interaction with the gentleman on the bench. It is not a situation I find myself in very often. I live in suburban Vermont. I don’t have many occasions when I interact with homeless folks. So I think about it more perhaps than your average city dweller when it does happen.
I didn’t feel unsafe with the gentleman on the bench. On the contrary, he seemed quite nice. I am not unhappy with the interaction we had. I am simply aware of my discomfort in the discrepancy of what choices we had in the moment. Perhaps how the choices we had made in the past led us to that moment and how different our situations were.
I know that buying that gentleman lunch would not have impacted his life hugely. But it is obviously still affecting me that I am thinking and writing about it hours later. Perhaps I will see him tomorrow.