A couple of months ago, on a normal day behind the counter at a little downtown coffee shop, a couple with their tiny daughter came in and began perusing the menu. I offered assistance and my recommendations, watching as the little girl danced wildly around her parents’ legs and eyed up the cookies on the counter.
The door to the shop was open, letting in a warm summer breeze that tended to carry with it a customer or two. Sunlight poured through the many windows, and the sound of hot coffee brewing in a steady stream behind me was accompanied by friendly chatter and soft indie music.
Just as the couple began ordering, a man came shouting into the shop.
“You hate me because I’m homeless!” The man yelled at the couple, his face red with fury. He was of average height, with greasy red hair and a bushy, unkempt beard.
I’d seen the man before. When I first started working at the coffee shop, I liked to take leftover bakery with me after my shifts and roam around our downtown looking for peaceful places to eat. At one point I passed him on the street, and he asked me if I had any money to give him. I dug into my bag, pulled out a cinnamon roll wrapped in wax paper, and handed it to him. He seemed disappointed, and asked for money once again. I told him I only had my card on me, and walked away.
Soon after, I started seeing him coming into the coffee shop as a customer. He was generally quiet and sullen, sitting for a while to escape some form of brutal weather until he got up again and started walking, walking and walking. I didn’t realize how far he walked until I started driving, and I’d see him on the side of roads miles from downtown. He always wore the same athletic pants, Packers jersey, and large coat.
I was shocked to see him so confrontational, so unstable. “Do you think I chose to live like this?! Do you think just because I’m homeless, I’m any less than you?!” He screamed. His anger seemed to only slightly outweigh his sorrow. I thought he might cry if he ever stopped yelling.
As the couple braced themselves around their daughter, asking why he was targeting them, I ran to my boss’ office. She immediately leaped into action. Tentatively, she pulled the man to a bench outside the shop and talked to him, quietly, gently.
In the meantime, I talked with the couple, trying to find out what had unleashed the man’s eruption of anger. Moments before the couple came in to the shop, their daughter had run up to the man and started talking to him. The couple pulled their daughter away, telling her not to talk to strangers, and tried to turn the experience into a lesson for their fearless energy ball of a daughter. The man, somehow, must have misinterpreted their intentions as hate for the homeless.
The couple asserted that if the man came back in, they would pay for whatever he wanted to eat.
The couple ordered their own meal (and I gave their daughter a free cookie). Soon, the man reentered looking embarrassed, guilty, yet still a little… unstable. I told him that he had a free meal waiting for him, and his eyes, lined by dirt and wrinkles and caterpillar eyebrows, twinkled with joy. He ordered a hefty sandwich. Before moving away from the counter, he leaned toward me.
“Can you go ask that family over there if I can apologize?” He asked. “I didn’t mean to get so angry.” He paused for a second, looked down at his feet. Through his beard, he mumbled, “It’s just hard sometimes, you know?”
The couple immediately agreed to talk with the man, and the man walked over to apologize. The couple explained the lesson they were trying to teach and expressed that they had not intended to wrong him in any way. The little girl continued to buzz around the store, oblivious, and the man watched with amusement. He returned to his own seat and quietly ate his meal.
In the end, all was well. The man ate his sandwich, free of charge. A little girl got a free cookie. And a couple people that day, myself included, saw first-hand the fury that can come when one must face poverty.
It was one of those moments in my life where a parallel world to the experiences of others opened before me. I always knew that that world existed, and had even come in contact with it when I gave the man a cinnamon roll, or when I saw the homeless holding signs next to intersections, or when I donated food to local charities.
But never before had I truly confronted the devastation that comes from living a life without a home. Not only did that man have no home and no food, but also faced social criticism for having to live in such desperation.
I don’t know his circumstances. But I do know that there are others like him, who face the challenge to be a human being every single goddamn day. To live, to be happy. Don’t we all deserve that much?