Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I Like The Fish

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.


Leslie said...

Beautiful. Morrie would be pleased. :) Leslie

t. said...

You set an amazing example, Doc, to not only your kids but to the rest of us who vicariously share your adventures.

Thanks for doing what so many of us would fail to do.


merinz said...

I had never seen homeless people, or people looking for food in rubbish bins until I went to North America. That was 30 years ago and I can still remember my shock and horror.

Sadly we now have a few in the bigger cities in our country (New Zealand).

Rositta said...

It was a good lesson for your children. T-dot is a city of 5 million and we have a large number of homeless. Our neighbourhood only has one that I know about and he sits quietly outside our local pharmacy with his little box. I have engaged him in conversation and always find a few coins to put in his box. At Christmas though I have him a larger sum of money plus some handknit wool socks that were gently worn. His smile was priceless...ciao

coulrophobic agnostic said...

Bad manners, Mr Homeless Man ;) But yay for you for recognizing that just because someone has less than you doesn't mean they should fall all over themselves with gratitude because you gave them something at all. You really seem like a great guy, and your kids are lucky to have someone like you to learn from.

DreamingTree said...

Sweet. :-) Teaching your kids to see the person is priceless.

IrishPoet said...

that's a beautiful story doc...ever since I was a kid I always saw people like this on the streets of our city- and still do- and I also noticed that a lot of others didn't 'see' them for some reason, maybe because they didn't want to? And I've bought a few meals, bus tickets, always put a couple of bucks in the hand of the person at the intersection with his/ her sign, even when others say these folks probably get in their 'Cadillac' and drive home to their nice house in the 'burbs at the end of the day (which I believe thay say to justify ignoring them?) I never think that they might be a 'fraud' or faking their homelessness even though I guess it's possible...instead I just give and trust in the universe (or God?) that it's the right thing to do, because there are so many people in need in our country and world that I have to do something for the ones who are right in front of me...well done doctor, well done!

Dr. Woof-Woof said...

Beautiful story. And a beautiful lesson for your kiddos - and all of us as well. It just warms my heart. Thank you for sharing with us <3

D'Vorah RN said...

It really is amazing how many people can simply overlook the homeless. Back in Denver, I had gone out to lunch with some coworkers and a homeless man collapsed and started seizing. I actuall saw people STEP OVER (not around) this man. I told my coworkers to call 911 and I stood next to him so that he wouldn't get run over (he had collapsed in a driveway). I will never forget the callousness of those pedestrians.
Not to say that I'm so great myself -- I won't just give money to someone who is begging: I always ask them to tell me a story (any one will do). It generally surprises them and I've learned some interesting things about people that way.
All that to say thank you for setting such a fine example for your children and all who witness (whether personally or in this blog) your compassion.

Cal said...

Interesting story. You did what many of us do not do, even though we think we should. Sometimes, fear of accidentally opening a can of worms trumps the instinct to help (at least it does in my case). I liked the twist, the fact he preferred a fish sandwich... I think on one hand gave him a sense of dignity, highlighting he had a preferences as a human being; on the other hand, maybe he had a twinge of mental illness, refusing a perfectly good meal over a slight detail.

Katie Axelson said...

Thumbs up!

Anonymous said...

I think most people are overall unsure of what to say when they see homeless people. Some people feel as if they're homeless by choice. Very few realize that they too could be there someday. If they ever had a chance to talk to some of them they would realize they were once at the top of their game. Some were doctors or lawyers, maybe even executives. Not all, but some. But in our society we're taught that those who aren't like us don't deserve to be among us. I think that's sad. It's refreshing that your children already know kindness and respect toward even those who don't fit with society's image of perfection.

By the way, thank you for your words of encouragement on my blog. I really appreciated it.

SeaSpray said...

You never know ..he could've been an angel. :)

I'm just thinking of the scripture that says be kind to strangers because we could be entertaining angels without knowing it. :)

What a good experience for all of you. We never know the effect we have on people after an encounter, and so who knows maybe more good things happened with the man even after he gave you all the friendly wave and ate his fish sandwich. And you were all blessed too.

I'm with you ..surprised at the fish statement but then appreciate his gumption as you say.

I like the Daddy date idea. :)

Carolynn Anctil said...

I *heart* your kids. How incredibly unusual in this day and age of entitlement. I'm also impressed with the respect and caring you extended toward another human being, regardless of stature. Evidently, your children have not fallen far from the tree.


Anonymous said...

This was truly a wonderful example to set for your children.

All too often, I've been a hairsbreadth from homelessness myself; so many of the people who are offended by them, are less than one paycheck from joining their ranks and don't even realize it.

That said, I too have been guilty of 'class-ism' -- I can be offended, too.

It's not that I begrudge sharing what I do have - I'm always happy to get food for someone, especially if I've managed to save enough to get fast food (though just as you did, it's that I will buy food, NOT give money - same at grocery store. I'll buy you food but not give you the cash to buy it).
But (possibly because I've had health issues all my life, and have helped to support my mom even so, even when that meant having to sleep in my van or crash on friend's couches at times), I *do* sometimes get offended when someone who seems to me to be at least as healthy and young as myself (I'm in my mid-thirties, moderately to severely disabled, in a powerchair, oxygen-dependent, etc), is upset when I am not willing to give them the cash that I earned by working 12 to 17hr days at a non-profit (not exaggerating, because non-profits are understaffed, and yet staffed by people who care about what they're trying to accomplish, n'est pas? :) ).

I'm a bit of an idealist, yet sometimes cynical, and - yeah. I do have a bit of the 'if I'm dealing with all of this, you can manage to either work or figure out how to manage public services so you don't have to, and get on the dole...'

I realize that not everyone can, but - i mean some of the specific, young, muscular, men, who accost me for money during my daily travels.

All of this negative rambling of mine on a positive post that you made about a great example you set for your friends after giving someone else a gift of showing them that there are still people in the world capable of acting and treating others *as humans* - I apologize for my inappropriateness. I honestly just wanted to thank and commend you, but then got rambly. Goodnight.

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