With the temperatures now dropping down to freezing, my mind wanders back to an encounter I had last winter. It was a snowy few days in February, and being homebound, I was feeling the panic of cabin fever setting in. The storm had cleared, the plows had bullied their way down the road and I felt the need to escape.
It was a good day to go over and browse through Walmart, pick up a few groceries and walk around and stretch my legs a bit. Only a mile from my home, the store has become a winter getaway and an endless source of people-watching material.
It was close to noon, and the Subway counter had its usual magnetic appeal. Perhaps I could take a sub home and enjoy it in leisure before the fireplace. The store was almost empty. Most people still were unaware that the weather had cleared and the roads were fairly passable. I was the only customer in the restaurant section, or so I thought, but then I spotted him. He was in a corner booth – half in the shadows – sitting very much alone consuming a sub sandwich.
He was wrapped in several layers of clothing; his feet engulfed with heavy army-type boots. His clothes were mostly dark gray in color, but perhaps lighter at an earlier, cleaner time. His navy pea coat was slightly open, exposing a ragged beard – apparently untrimmed for several weeks. A black wool cap covered most of his mangled dark hair. His eyes were small, almost lost in the grayness of his face. A fascinating figure, I could not help but think of the character, Serpico. The man was less than 10 feet away from me, and his appearance bespoke the toll that weather and neglect had taken on him.
He seemed oblivious to me, consumed entirely with the sub. He made no effort to approach me or in any way communicate. The young clerks behind the counter seemed not to notice him as they went about filling their food containers.
I wondered how he had gotten there. Was he dropped off by a passing trucker – heading South perhaps? How was he able to pay for his food? Was it a generous contribution from a passer-by? Perhaps it was the establishment or even the young employees who were responsible for it.
I tried not to stare, but found the man fascinating. The dirty bundle tucked closely beside him probably contained most of his earthly goods. I was tempted to speak to him, but not sure how he would react. I would love to have known his story.
Living in suburbia all my adult life, I have been denied contact with many of the less fortunate in our society. We are quick to respond to the pleas of food banks or the occasional clothing collection, but few of us have any one-on-one connection with the most needy of our society. It was a rude awakening to see the reality of an apparently homeless person almost in my back yard.
I wish now I had had the courage to approach him. Did he need or even want help? His story may not have been much different from others like him. I’m sure he never intended to be homeless. Maybe at some point he did have a job and a family. Tragedy travels many roads, and somehow tragedy found him.
None of us is exempt from some fates. As comfortable as we are now, this, too, could change. The next time there is a collection for the City Mission, I may dip a little deeper. After all, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Joan Wickett is a retired secretary living in Hamburg.