We’ve all seen them; they stand at freeway and grocery store exits, stop lights and haunt our streets – the homeless. When seen, our eyes generally avert, and our pace quickens. Even if we do help, it’s only to shove a bill or change into a hand or cup and quickly move on, our duty seemingly done. But what if we took the time to sit down and talk with them. I recently did just that; meet Dilby.
I was walking out of the grocery store and saw him sitting at the exit of QFC. Like so many, I’ve given food or money to the homeless, but my record protracted conversation was 5 minutes. I originally was just going to give him a water and buy a copy of “Street Paper”, but something changed as I walked over, and I instead sat down next to him. At first, he seemed a little taken back, so I introduced myself and asked him what his name was. For the next 35 minutes, we talked, and here is what I learned.
First of all, Dilby is a slow talker. He sometimes lost what he was saying and I would have to remind him of the last few sentences so that he could continue. Dilby told me that 3 years ago, he was working for a packing and shipping company – he was supporting himself. He told me that he’d never heard of ‘Systematic Pneumonia’ until it took away his life. He nearly died and spent 28 days in an induced coma. After that, he spent 3 months in a rest home until doctors decided he was well enough to move out. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as strong as they’d settled on and a new bought of illness again brought him to the hospital. His movements reminded me of Flash from Zootopia, slow and methodical. It’s clear that both his cognitive and motor skills were affected.
In the course of our conversation, I offered Dilby the mixed nuts that I’d purchased for myself. He first shook his head saying no, but then he saw that there were cashews there, saying, “Man, I love cashews”. So I went back into QFC and grabbed a bag from the donut display. We then took all the cashews out so that he could enjoy them later.
We both talked about our childhoods, me sharing stories that mirrored his own. After being released from care the last time, he found that two traumatic episodes from his childhood had left him with an irrational fear of two things – heights and water. Even taking a shower makes him re-experience a near-drowning from his youth when his Father tried to carry him on his back across a river. He didn’t like being smelly and dirty, but couldn’t face showers on the occasions they were made available.
As Dilby finished up this story, suddenly tears filled his eyes and he stopped, paused for an uncomfortable moment, and said, “Man, you really twisted my noodle”. I apologized, saying I was sorry if I’d brought back painful memories, but that wasn’t what made him cry. He went on to say that I was the first person in years that had talked with him like he was a person. It was then me that was crying and we shook hands, unabashed.
So next time you see the unwashed, the homeless, the mentally ill – the chaff, remember that there’s a human being there. There’s a story behind the pain and more than just money or food, a kind word may be the thing they are most in need of. Sometimes we just need to acknowledge they exist.