Just the day before, running errands after work, I had seen him walking along the overgrown grassy side of a rush-hour four lane. He was a grown man but seemed to be wearing a football uniform that badly fit him. He was carrying his belongings in a large laundry bag. I was busy. Traffic was thick. I didn’t think much about him except for his unusual clothing.
I was caught by surprise the next morning as I walked into a restaurant suddenly to find this same man in the same clothing standing at the counter ahead of me. He turned around and walked toward me like he knew me. He announced: “I’m in bad need. You got some money? I need you to give me some money.”
He had been standing next to a woman who was helping him order some breakfast. She watched with kind eyes. I opened my wallet. I did have some money, and I was willing to give him some. I pulled out a 5.00 bill and handed it to him. He seemed pleased, like a child, and like a child he did not miss that pulling out the 5.00 caused another 1.00 to edge out as well. “Can I have that 1.00, too?” I gave him the 1.00, too.
At that point, a woman in professional attire was standing next to me. She took me by the arm. She was the manager. She looked really anxious. I told her it was okay. That I was okay. That I didn’t mind. Really. “But we cannot have people coming in and panhandling in the restaurant.” I reassured her that it was okay. The man returned to the woman who was helping him get his breakfast. I moved up in line and placed my order. The cashier hit buttons, and then just looked at me. “No charge.” I was caught by surprise again. The manager stepped in behind her and said: “Just trying to pay it forward, sir.”
I pondered what had happened all the way to my little group that was gathering there for a meeting, and all through the day, and for several days after that, until now. Momentary belonging–this sense of connection–between people who (not one of us) knew each other. Each attempting some sort of humanity–and that most certainly includes the man who found it in himself to say: I need help! I was caught by the surprise of his boldness. Of his child-likeness. I was caught by the kind look in the eyes of the woman who was helping him buy food. I was caught by the manager who really didn’t know what to do. I was caught by my own sense of calm in all of it. I was caught by the notion that the manager wanted to pay it forward to me!
Belonging and community can happen by accident. Even by accident, though, it strikes me that all belonging, all community results from this power we have to attempt being human and humane between us. The opportunities can be chosen. They can be unexpected and catch us by surprise. Either way, we have this power to attempt humanity between us.
Thank you, man in the unusual clothing. And the woman with the kind eyes. And the manager who wasn’t sure what to do. I found something of myself in each of you. I found some kind of belonging.