On the way to my doctor’s office on a cold November morning, I used a detour due to road construction. I slowly drove through an alley when I noticed a man sitting on the concrete. His legs were stretched out in front of him. His feet were swollen, bulging out of his lace-less shoes. I could not tell how old he was. He wore a brown tattered jacket. His hair was thick and matted.
I stopped my car and rolled down my window. He looked at me as though he were trying to recognize me. I don’t know why, but I smiled at him. He forced a weak smile. It was evident that he was homeless by the dirty blankets piled behind his back. I had the urge to give him money though he did not ask for any. I looked at his feet; it was apparent that it would be difficult for him to get up to go find a place to buy food.
It was a crisp morning. I asked him if he’d like a cup of hot coffee and something to eat. He just looked at me with a vulnerable expression. At that moment I literally felt my heart ache. Fighting back tears, the lump in my throat was painful. My emotions took me by surprise. I had seen homeless people many times before and though I felt sorry for them, I was never affected like this. “Why now?,” I asked myself.
Apologetically, I said, goodbye to the stranger and prayed that my doctor visit wouldn’t take too long.
In the waiting room, I felt anxious as if I had another pending appointment or as if I had to pick up a child soon after the last school bell rang. I sat in the waiting room clasping my hands in an attempt to calm myself.
After my appointment, I found a McDonald’s and purchased coffee and a meal. I drove to the ally and found the stranger. He was lying on his side on the ground. I parked my car and walked over to him. He slowly rose to a sitting position. He had a handkerchief in his hand he used to wipe his weather-beaten face. I handed him the coffee and bag of food. After a short hesitation, he took it.
He didn’t say anything audible to me, but his soft brown eyes spoke volumes. They told me he was grateful and he was a proud man in spite of his circumstances. Perhaps that is why I didn’t stay to watch him eat.
Subsequently, I found myself thinking about that stranger often, imagining his previous life and even inventing bits of dialogue between us. I thought about him when it rained, while I prepared a meal, when putting up holiday decorations, or while attending a social event.
I returned to that alley with my husband many times. We brought him a jacket, a shaving bag packed with sundries, a sleeping bag and food. Each time his eyes conveyed warm feelings to me. I didn’t know if he could speak English or if he just couldn’t speak at all.
I was going to ask someone I knew who worked at homeless shelter if they could help. Unfortunately, when I went to see the stranger, he was gone. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t be there.
I felt a rush of emotions as I drove up and down the alley and streets searching for him to no avail. That was many years ago. I still ask myself why I didn’t do more.
All I can do now is to continue to pray for him and in remembrance of him to reach out to others in need. I believe I’m a better person for having met him.
The memory of that stranger has found shelter in my heart where I visit him and we have reflective conversations. In my heart, we are no longer strangers.
Yolanda Adele is a member of the writing class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. It is held off-campus at the Norwalk Senior Center.