A few years back, I took my two older children out on a "Daddy-date" that culminated with a sit-down lunch at McDonalds.
As we sat eating our meal in the pleather booth, complete with a beautiful busy intersection view, we noticed a homeless person pushing a rusty grocery cart across the road's crosswalk, towards us. Cars were flying by, barely stopping, their horns honking as if that would make this person go faster. Or, as I'm sure some hoped, go away.
"What is that man doing, Daddy?" my son asked, his hand, holding a french fry, paused in the air.
"Why don't we just watch and see where he goes, buddy," I said, hoping the man would reach our side of the road quickly.
The man did make it across the street. He continued to push his cart towards our direction. At this point, my kids were now completely entranced. Nuggets were getting cold, ketchup was drying on french fries, and Happy Meal toys were all but forgotten. And yet, none of us could take our eyes off this lonely figure now struggling with his cart to cross the curb into our parking lot.
Slowly, he advanced up the sidewalk, eventually pushing his cart right up to the building, outside our viewing window. My kids continued to watch closely, absorbing everything about this man that they could. Sadly, I was prepared to avert my eyes, as most of us as adults do, if he would look in at us and see us watching him.
Up close, he was in a sad state. The fall weather was turning cold and this gentleman was obviously struggling to stay atop of the falling temperatures. He was dressed in layers, finished by a top coat that was scrappy at best. Underneath, his exposed shirt was torn and tattered. He wore half-fingered gloves, slender dirty fingers poking out of the frayed edges. Long, scraggly hair poked out from beneath a fragile ski-cap, complimenting his unkempt beard. His pants and boots were in disarray and threadbare.
He parked his shopping cart against the building, returning to it twice to check on it and push it tighter in. Finally, happy with his park-job, we saw a brief smile cross his face as he looked in on us. Taking a note from my children, I did not avert my eyes but, rather, appreciated the raw kindness emanating from his quick glance.
"Daddy, he's coming in!" my daughter squealed. "Can we buy him his lunch?" But of course, I told her.
Slowly, he made his way into the restaurant. My kids spun on their seats, turning to watch the gentleman enter through the doorway. Sadly, as he entered, an exiting couple took a step back, away from his approach. It was, I can only assume, to ensure that they wouldn't get this man's contagious misfortune.
He walked into the restaurant and despite the stares and mumbling, walked up to a booth near ours, head held proudly up. He wiped the table off with his fingerless gloves and then proceeded to spread out a rumpled newspaper he pulled from his pocket.
"Come on, kids. Let's go get a hamburger for this gentleman." The kids eagerly jumped from our booth.
As the man continued to customize his booth table, we walked up to the counter and ordered a Quarter-Pounder Value Meal. "Don't forget to super-size it," my son added. Of course, I assured him, thinking that would be the best additional 35 cents I'll ever spend. We also got him an x-large coffee to go with his Coke.
Excited but nervous, the kids and I approached the gentleman's booth, me holding the coffee and the kids carrying the large drink and bag of food.
"Excuse me, sir," I said, offering over the coffee, "but we thought maybe we could buy you some lunch today."
The man raised his eyes from his table to meet mine. We looked at one another briefly before he turned to closely look over both kids. I felt their free hands tightly grip my pant leg. Finally, he focused on the bag of food.
I took the bag of food from my daughter and the soda from my son and placed them on the table beside the coffee. The cat had definitely gotten my kids' tongues, so I spoke.
"We got you the Quarter-Pounder Meal with a big coke and french fries. We got you coffee, too, in case you wanted to warm up."
"I like the fish."
"I like the fish."
Oh, my. The kids looked up at me as he finished talking. I was surprised and a little hurt, to be honest, for this gentleman's lack of appreciation. I mean, come on, free food and drinks! I quickly admonished myself and reasoned through his behavior, though. Being homeless or down-and-out doesn't mean he still can't have likes and dislikes. Suddenly, I appreciated and respected this man's gumption all the more.
Looking down at my kids expectant faces, I knew what we needed to do.
"Sir, I'm sorry we didn't ask you first. Besides the hamburger, is everything else okay? What else do you need?"
He was a man of few words. "Fish," he said, "and hot chocolate. No coffee."
Okay, I thought, we can do that. We hiked back up to the counter, got his order right this time, and carried a fish sandwich meal and hot chocolate back to his table.
He hadn't touched the previous bag of food or either drink while we were gone, but when we returned to the table, he eagerly took the bag holding the fish sandwich from us, looked in, and smiled a big smile when he saw the sandwich.
Slowly, he looked up from the bag. His smile continued, floating there under his ruddy cheeks, and he passed it on to my daughter, then my son, and finally to me. Priceless. We all returned his smile with our own. Such pure delight from something so simple.
"Do you need anything else, sir? Anything at all?"
He nodded his head no to any further offers of help. "Thank you," he spoke softly, quietly, our ears straining to hear his words. I'm sure it was for the food, but a part of me hoped that it might just be for treating him with respect and decency.
We walked back to our seat and gathered our things, cleaned off our table, and threw out our garbage. I couldn't help but wonder what the man would do with the hamburger and extra drinks. Oh well, they were his now.
As we walked out, my shy daughter surprised me. Just before the exit door, she turned around and yelled out to the smiling man eating a fish sandwich alone in his McDonald's booth. "Bye!"
The real surprise, though, was on all of us. Hearing my daughter's voice, this man stopped mid-bite, looked up at us, and waved a goodbye wave.
His attention went quickly back to his fish sandwich, but I could only hope that my kids' attention was focused on seeing beyond this man's misfortunes and seeing him simply as another fellow being, one who deserved a little respect and kindness in our big, infinite world.
Sadly, we haven't seen this man since... as always, thanks for reading. Next post will be Friday, January 22.