I received a priceless gift one afternoon as I left my office to grab a bite to eat. Before I focused on the temperature, or the people jostling along the sidewalk, or even my appetite, my attention was drawn to a man sitting in front of the building in a motorized wheelchair. He had an oxygen tank beside him which was hooked up to an outlet in a bank lobby next door. As I walked by him, as is my custom, I made eye contact, smiled, and said “hello.”
Because Washington, D.C. has so many homeless people, the average pedestrian has to make numerous split second decisions about whom to engage or avoid. The criteria for these choices probably arise from each individual’s values, beliefs and upbringing, mixed with the survival skills, or “street smarts” all city dwellers acquire over time. Also, The House of Ruth, a Washington shelter, used to have a van run, in which volunteers distributed food, blankets and warm conversation to homeless people. Working the van run taught me to trust my instincts about people, whether they were homeless or not.
I was drawn to this man in the chair. His face showed a kindness and intelligence that forced me to ask myself: “Oh God, how did he wind up here?” We introduced ourselves: “My name is Wayne.” He said. We talked for a good hour, about his term of Army service in Vietnam and having been confined and tortured for a time. It didn’t matter whether the story was factually accurate, he believed it, and the events he described were clearly a source of emotional trauma for him.
I eventually left to get a sandwich. As I passed by again to return to work, he asked me to look at the paperwork for a 501 (c) 3 filing. He was creating a non-profit organization for vocational training for homeless veterans. His filing was in order, and I took the papers back to him after I looked at them.
By this time it was cold outside. I had to work until 11 that night, and I was alternately worried about where he was going that night, and how, if at all, I would ever know what happened to him. When I told him I was going back in to work, he thanked me and handed me a bag from a local bakery.
That day was 3 years ago. I never saw Wayne again. The bag, which I opened later that evening, contained fresh bran muffins. Of course I had a fleeting doubt about consuming something given to me by a homeless person, and I examined them very carefully before sharing them with my family. The bigger lesson, however, was that someone who had suffered more than I can ever imagine had offered me what he could afford. Believe me when I say the muffins were all the more delicious because they were offered from the heart.
I think about Wayne frequently. I will never know where he is, or how he is. His innate nobility surpassed that of many of the ‘bluebloods’ I encounter throughout life, and pointed out that degrees and social status are not the primary indicators of a person’s quality. My wish for Wayne is that he is healthy and happy in whatever he chooses to do. My wish for the rest of us is that we allow ourselves to be touched and affected by the plight of others around us, because truly, you receive as much as you give.