I went to the library to connect to the internet and work on my website. I’ve never designed a website before, but I’m learning. There is a paranoia that comes with having everything that you own inside one small and vulnerable space, so I needed to keep an eye on Bubba while I was inside the building. Zuzu was also in the truck, and I am as protective of my dog as she is of me. I picked a parking spot where I had a great view of the library windows, but I wasn’t sure if I could see my truck from the inside. It was amazing that when I reached the second floor, there were tables with outlets right next to the windows. I didn’t have a clear a view of Bubba from the second table, but I did from the fourth.
Unfortunately, there was already somebody sitting at the fourth table. I walked by, and I could tell that this middle aged man was watching me as I searched for a spot. He asked if I wanted to sit at his table and share the outlet. I gratefully took a seat diagonally from him, closer to the window, where I had an absolutely perfect view of the truck. The man was in his late forties or fifties, and he was on the phone with some sort of automated phone service. He looked like a blue collar man, but it was hard to tell.
As he waited on hold, and I waited for my website to load, we struck up a conversation. It began when he noticed my neurotic glances out the window toward my truck. It was almost a twitch, and I was straining to see Zuzu in the passenger seat from two stories up. It must have looked strange, because the man asked me what I was looking at. I told him about my project, and that everything important was in my truck. The fear of crime has not yet been assimilated into my day-to-day existence, as it had for the people on the street.
The man had kind eyes, and he told me stories of his days in the Navy, and his ex-wife. He said he was retired with a pension, and that he didn’t have to worry about where the money was coming from anymore. It wasn’t always that way. He talked about problems with money and how it affected his divorce, and that he didn’t like Columbia because he’d rather live on the east coast, like in Charleston.
I thought of my visit to the beach in Charleston, running into the ocean while the storm rolled in – I can still see that night like a photograph in my mind. Mike was telling me there weren’t any sharks in that water, but I didn’t believe him. The sky was completely dark, except for the dark orange storm clouds in the distance still hovering over the place where the sun had set. The pier was lit up under a black and orange canopy. I remember running along the deserted beach, tasting the salt water and feeling my hair become dreadlocks.
After finally getting on the phone with someone at a doctors’ office, the man got up to leave for an appointment. He told me his name was Donald, and that if he saw me around again he’d take me to lunch somewhere in town so that I could get a hot meal. I told him I was fine, thinking about my pop tarts, but he said people needed hot food. After he left, I sat and answered emails for another half hour while I waited for the website to publish. Eventually, Donald came back. He sat down across from me and said that his appointment got rescheduled for an hour from now, and that he had decided to go ahead and get me that hot lunch today, instead of someday.
He told me about a bar up the street, and he offered to take me up there to get some food. As I thought about it, my computer flashed a message: “Upload Complete!” I shut the laptop and grabbed my coat. As we walked toward the corner bar at one in the afternoon, Donald told me that he liked my ideas, and that if everybody would just help each other out, the world would be a better place. When we looked at the restaurant menu, Donald told me to get whatever I wanted. I ordered a burger. Donald sat with me, talking about car troubles, his ex-wife and his job search, eventually confessing that he spends entirely too much of his pension money on alcohol. After a half hour, he said goodbye. He told me that he had to make it to his appointment, but to enjoy the burger, and that I could find him at the library if I wanted to say “Hi.” I knew when I shook his hand that I would probably never see him again. I pondered this random act of kindness from a stranger as I watched him feed quarters into my parking meter.
After he left, one of Donald’s friends came to sit next to me. Donald had waived at him when we walked through the door, and I had the sense that Donald has never met a stranger. He seemed to know everyone in the room. I could feel the waitresses watching me as I moved over to allow Donald’s friend to sit down. Some of the other people in the bar were watching me too, but I didn’t care. The man smiled at me and shook my hand, and then he asked me how I knew Donald. I explained that I had met him at the library and that Donald had offered to buy me a warm meal. His eyebrows raised, so I asked him how he knew Donald. He looked at the table as he replied, “We are bunkmates at the winter shelter up the street.”
I looked down at my burger with a heart full of guilt, knowing that Donald had just bought my lunch – and unlike me, he doesn’t even have a truck to sleep in. When I left the restaurant, I turned to look back over my shoulder as I walked away. How many of the people inside are homeless? Why didn’t I realize it? What does this mean?
Originally published by Spare Change News © www.streetnewsservice.org
(Photo: Shay Kelley/Project 50/50)