A few days ago, I took the train into downtown Oakland to meet a friend for coffee. Usually, I’m running just on time or, too often, five minutes late. On this particular day, I happened to arrive 45 minutes early.
Having arrived, my natural disposition was to find the nearest coffee shop, plug in my computer and get some work done. However, on this beautiful Bay Area afternoon, I felt like what I needed most was to simply stand still for a while.
Here’s what happened…
As I was finishing up a sausage from Top Dog, I was spotted by one of the most emaciated, beautiful little Asian men I have ever seen. When he started to walk toward me, I thought to myself, “Of course! He comes to the only person standing still in the entire area.” As he continued to stumble toward me, I heard what I had just thought and took a look around. I was, indeed, the only person out of the hundreds within eye-shot that was standing still.
Decision time, do I avert eye contact so that I can stand still somewhere else or do I continue to stand still and let what will happen, happen?
I stood still.
He was just taller than my belly button, covered in soiled clothes, and wearing a whispy beard. I read both desperation and relief in his eyes as he gathered the courage to speak to the only person who wasn’t walking away from him.
“I’m hungry,” he wheezed with what I thought to be the last ounce of energy available in his 90 pound body.
I paused, waiting for him to ask for money but the question never came. The silence of the brief moments that followed impressed on me the privilege I had to do something about his hunger.
“What are you hungry for?” I asked.
“How about something from over there?” he responded, nodding beyond me to a soup and salad bar.
“Let’s go.” I said, gesturing with my head and neck in much the same way.
In we walked, a healthy 6’1” young man and his…what was he? Was he my friend, a stranger…? It seemed that everyone in the restaurant was asking the same question: “What is he?” What’s more, I read the staff of the restaurant wondering, “Who is he with?” and “He’d better not steal anything from us!”
I just stood by him, fascinated by what he did…
Rather than taking the biggest “to-go” container that he could, he reached out his crooked little hands and took the smallest one available. Then, meticulously, he selected the tiniest portions of what, I’m sure, were his favorite delicacies: watermelon, strawberries, pasta salad, avocado, cucumber…
Satisfied with his selections, he closed the clear, plastic box up and looked into my eyes. I saw gratitude and hope. He didn’t say anything…he just stood by me waiting for me to make the next move.
“Something to drink?” I asked knowing that he had missed the four massive refrigerators boasting a broad selection of flavored beverages.
Slowly, he walked over and was instantly dwarfed by coolers. He seemed a bit overwhelmed. Perhaps that was due to the burden of choice or perhaps it was because he had a choice…
He chose an orange one and cautiously returned to my side. Together, we approached the cashier who I had noticed as being most suspicious of the goings-on.
“We’ll settle up!” I said, pulling my wallet from my back pocket.
“Is this all?” she asked, no doubt with a series of questions running through her mind.
“This is all.” I returned as I gazed at the tiny meal in the weathered hands of a friend I may never see again.
“$4.50.” she said after a longer than normal pause. I knew she had given us a deal.
I handed over my Visa to pay the tab, signed the receipt, and handed it back to the cashier. A new softness replaced the suspicion that had previously permeated our interaction. “Thank you.” she said, not so much thanking us for our business but, seemingly, for something much more.
“Thank you.” I responded, moved by what was happening in that moment.
“Thank you.” said this dear little man to no one in particular. In those two meaning-saturated words, I felt that, in humility, he was expressing his gratitude to someone or something far beyond those who were standing in line.
He walked for the door and I followed, longing to learn more but knowing that our time together had come to an end. He held the door for me, and I walked through expecting to turn around and see him shuffling away. Instead, I saw him standing by the door with his head cocked ever so slightly in one direction and looking at me. The gentlest smile cracked his face as he nodded one time, turned, and walked away.
As I watched him merge into the sea of human motion, I glanced up at the clock tower. That whole encounter had taken twelve minutes…I had 33 minutes left…
…so I stood still.