Monday, November 22, 2004

A Lesson in Generosity from The Stranger

This past Friday I had the misfortune of waiting for two hours for the Metro bus to take me to my park and ride. It was noon when I arrived at the stop, and I was looking forward to spending the rest of the day with my wife. But what I learned over the next two hours was well worth the inconvenience.

This particular bus stop is right next to Pierce Elevated, which is a large Interstate 45 overpass, populated by many of Houston's homeless. The stench from under Pierce Elevated is a combination of exhaust, garbage, and urine. Most Houstonians don't want to have their days interrupted by the harsh reality presented by this section of downtown.

As I sat down waiting for my bus (which was supposed to arrive in 3 minutes), I noticed a large bearded man sit down close to me, sitting in a position so that he was staring at me. I assumed he wanted money, but I happened to have no cash and had a mere quarter in my pocket. I didn't make eye contact with The Stranger until he asked me for a smoke. He spoke in very low tones, stumbling on his words. I told him I wished I could help him, but I don't smoke. I then gave him my quarter explaining that's all I had. Shortly thereafter a much older man approached the stranger, holding out a handful of change and exclaiming "can you believe it, and I didn't even have to ask". Judging from their brief conversation, it became evident that neither of these two men liked asking strangers for money.

Over the course of the next 45 minutes, The Stranger and I began to get to know each other. I was particularly interested in how he came to be living under the bridge. His grungy hair and dirty clothes hid a handsome man who was well groomed a short time ago. His clothes were relatively clean, and I was shocked to see he carried a cell phone. Something didn't add up.

The Stranger told me he was kicked out of his house by his wife a few weeks ago. She will not answer his calls, and his cell phone was to be disconnected any day. And although he came to Pierce Elevated with some cash, 3 weeks of homeless life had nearly depleted his money. According to the stranger, asking people for money was "fucked up". His wife kicked him out of the house because he "fucked up". And the fact that so many people were in his same position was "fucked up". For three weeks, he had been doing his best to take care of himself, to protect his 3 new buddies, and to give them cigarettes when they asked. But now, he was the one asking for smokes. He was the one who would soon have to start asking for change if he wanted to eat.

As it became clear that my noon bus was not going to arrive, I decided to do something to help these folks. The nearby McDonalds accepted debit cards, so I asked The Stranger if he was hungry. He motioned to his buddies and said they were all hungry. We walked over to their small patch of real estate where they slept, and I asked "who wants lunch?". All 3 jumped up with a resounding yes, and I took their orders. A mere $15 bought 4 quarter pounders, 4 apple pies, and a large coke. Each man expressed his gratitude for what I'd done, and I was quite happy to help them. I was also proud of myself for being so generous. I discovered shortly that my generosity was nothing compared to The Stranger's.

As the men pulled out their meals, a woman who was eating a sandwich nearby asked "Do you have anything for me?" I apologized and said I just bought lunch for the folks who were there at the time. Without hesitation, the stranger handed his meal to the woman. I looked with disbelief, saying "she already had something, don't you want to eat"? The stranger just shrugged and said "I know her. That sandwich was probably bad, and she's hungry". I had given of my excess, The Stranger gave nearly everything he had.

As I continued to wait for the 1:00 bus (which would never arrive), The Stranger and I continued to converse. He repeated many times how generous I was, and how my actions would be repaid. I told him his generosity far exceeded mine. As we spoke further, The Stranger told me his downfall lied in his water bottle. He has been an alcoholic for 10 years, and now drinks straight vodka from a water bottle all day. Asked if he could go back to his wife to try to get his life back in order, he said no. Asked if he could go back to his wife if he quit drinking, he said yes. He then asked "Can you help me?". At that moment, The Stranger's burden hit me squarely in the face. His dependence cost him his job, his home, and his wife. He wants all of those things back, but cannot get past his addiction. But despite his situation, his reluctance to ask for money and his incredible generosity make it clear that he is still holding strong to his dignity.

When the 2:00 bus arrived, I shook The Stranger's hand. His grip was strong and his hands were calloused, revealing years of hard manual labor. He thanked me for what I'd done, and I thanked him. For he had given me far more than I had given to him.

Now I'm left to ponder his question - "Can you help me?". The fact that I don't know what else I can do for him is "fucked up". So I'm left to spread these words as we approach the holidays: Be generous with others, reach out to strangers in need, and if you know anybody with a dependence problem, take action now before it's too late.

God bless, and have a happy Thanksgiving.

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