The Chestnut Hill Mall was a comfortable temperature, I noted, as three women passed me, power-walking the length of the mall. They’d reach the end, turn about, and come back, over and over again.
As I watched them I noticed a man carrying two battered plastic garbage bags enter the mall. His clothing was somewhat tattered and he was layered with multiple shirts and two jackets, one under the other. His under-jacket was slightly longer than his overcoat and both of the garments were speckled with stains in multiple places.
The man came, looked around and noticed a group of soft chairs and a couch in the center of the mall. He trundled his belongings over to them and, after carefully laying the bags on the floor, he sat down. His face looked weather-worn, rough and red, and it appeared as if he hadn’t shaved for a week or so.
I watched the women on their trip down the mall hall and as they passed the spot where the man was sitting they all stared at him. They looked at each other and grimaced. I was sitting on the other side of the grouping of chairs and couches and I watched as the women continued past.
The man, who was baggage laden, closed his eyes and he quickly fell into what appeared to be a restful sleep. I opened a book to read. Christmas music was playing softly in the background. I was about one-half hour early for a lesson on my new Apple computer and engrossed myself in an exciting book by Joe Hill called The Heart-Shaped Box.
I looked up for a moment and noticed the three women talking with a man dressed as a security guard, thought nothing of it, and went back to reading.
Suddenly, I sensed another presence in the area I was waiting.
The security guard was standing over the sleeping man nearby me.
“Excuse me, “ he said loudly. “Wake up.”
The man slowly came to awareness and looked up at the security guard.
“What do you think you’re doing here buddy?”, said the guard sternly.
“Sir,” said the man, “I’m just grabbing a few winks out here before the mall gets busy. It’s very cold out there and I have no place to live.”
“Not my problem,” said the guard. “You’ll have to pack your [expletive] and leave.”
“But I’m not bothering anyone, sir,” said the man.
I spoke up.
“He’s been here almost as long as I have and I don’t mind. I’m just waiting for a computer lesson and I’m early.”
The guard looked at me, his eyes glinting with fury and said, “This is none of your business.”
“Hey,” I said, “the guy is just a human being who needs a place to rest for a short time. He’s not bothering anyone.”
“Well, the women who are power-walking the mall differ with your opinion. They’re bothered.”
“Listen,” I said, “what’s their problem? They’re using the mall for their purposes and he’s using the mall for his.”
“We don’t like his kind around here, “ said the guard.
“What do you mean by ‘his kind’, buddy?”
“Are you looking to get arrested?” the guard angrily said loudly.
He turned to the old man, who appeared genuinely disturbed now, and said, “Pack your [expletive] and get the [expletive] out of here.”
I just sat there and watched, afraid to say anything else. The guard has used the magic “arrest” word and directed it at me. The older man picked up his bags, sighed softly, and slowly walked to the exit of the mall.
The guard glared at me for a minute, then walked away. My chest ached. I put the book back in my leather knapsack and closed my eyes as the guard stomped away.
I asked myself why it was okay for the women to walk the mall but the apparently homeless man could not rest there out of the winter’s cold? The world has become hard, bitter and strange. In the background I could hear the giant machines that kept the mall temperate humming away.
It was a song of sorrow. I knew that if I hummed a few bars I’d wind up behind some. I packed my gear and went to the Apple store for my computer class. The women walked past me, chattering and laughing, and their beady eyes reminded me of predatory birds.
It was hard to concentrate on my class. I kept thinking about the homeless man who just wanted a warm place to rest. I remembered that just about 12 years ago, that man was me. In today’s economic times, tomorrow that man or woman could be you.
When you pass someone on the street begging for money while the cold winter wind beats on your skin, think about your humanity and reach into your pocket. In today’s world, my wife and I write checks for food pantries and shelters. We’re just lucky. Both of us have experienced homelessness and we’ll never forget. I think about the homeless man at the mall and wonder where he is. I hope he’s in a safe warm place today that he can call his own.
Marc D. Goldfinger is a formerly homeless vendor who is now housed. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org