Last Friday I got off the train and headed to the corner of Madison and Canal. The corner was swamped with people. I found a place to stand as I waited for my husband to pick me up.
I noticed a tall unkempt man walking toward me and I knew immediately he would ask me for money.
As a Chicagoan I am used to being asked for money; it’s part of big city living. I usually give a quick dollar, some change, maybe leftover food or a bottle of water.
But still, I felt some annoyance and discomfort as he approached. Why is he choosing me in this big crowd of people? He started his sales pitch, but I was already in my purse, searching for a few dollars.
He reached for the money, looked me in the eye and quietly said, “You know I don’t want to ask for anything, you know I don’t like doing this.”
I held his gaze and realized his vulnerability – he almost sounded like a child. His nose was running and he looked so cold. He reminded me of my children when they need my help. He reminded me of myself when I am scared.
He needed money, but he was asking for something more – validation, understanding, and compassion for his situation.
Maybe he made some poor choices along the way, maybe he was a victim of circumstance, but regardless, he just wanted to be seen. He wanted to be recognized and looked in the eye.
I put my hand over his hand and said, “I know you don’t want to do this, I know that”. He said, “I want to pay this back, but if I don’t see you again, I will give to somebody in your honor.” I said, “That would be great, please do that.”
He said, “God Bless you”, I said it back, and he walked away. I took a deep breath and the thoughts began to flow.
My mission as a parent educator is to help parents see their children. To help parents validate and acknowledge who their children came here to be. To teach children that they belong and that they have a place in this world.
But does it stop there? Children grow into adults and this kind of reassurance is still necessary – people need to know they matter, that they belong, that they are understood.
They need to know they are not alone and that someone is willing to listen. It’s important to give this to our families, but it’s also important to offer this to our community, our city, our world. This is what connects us; this is what humanity means.
So today I am writing about this experience at my local coffee shop and there is an elderly gentleman sitting nearby trying to engage me in conversation.
My first response is agitation (this is work time, I must complete this article!), but the story of the Chicago man is sitting in front of me on the computer screen.
I am writing about the experience, but did I integrate the lesson? I am sharing so I can teach, but am I practicing what I preach? I decide to push the computer aside so I can really listen and respond to this man.
We talk about the final four (he shares his picks), but conversation quickly turns to his life – he is 85 (actually he says, “I am 58, but backwards”) and his wife passed away five years ago.
He says she was beautiful. He says he misses her. He says she loved poetry and he likes to hand out poems she enjoyed to “spread the love”.
He reaches into his bag and hands me a wrinkled piece of paper with a photocopied poem. He says it’s a special one just for me.
I am glad that I live, that I battle and strive
For the place that I know I must fill;
I am thankful for sorrows; I’ll meet with a grin
What fortune may send, good or ill
I may not have wealth, I may not be great,
But I know I shall always be true,
For I have in my life that courage you gave
When once I touched shoulders with you.