The first time I saw him he was sitting on an old metal bench along the sidewalk of Birch Street. I'll admit I was judgmental like everyone else. His face was thin and had quite defined cheekbones. His skin was wrinkled from old age and a rough life, I guessed. His eyes were grey, almost a faded blue, and hardened. He wore a pair of black pants that were too short on him, and so thin that I guessed his legs were numb from the cold. His tattered old coat also had holes and was probably older than the man himself. The man's nose was very defined; despite his ragged clothes, the man's facial structure made me think that he should be royalty.
It was beginning to snow again, and I was in a bad mood. Work was intense and I was sick of the snow. Being single and a young man of twenty-four, I was all-consumed with my job and, mostly, myself. I never had time to stop and talk with beggars on the street; well, I never made time
all they ever wanted was money. And I had far more important things to do.
I don't know why, but this man made me stop in my tracks. There were countless homeless people that I saw every single day, and so far none of them had received even the slightest portion of my time. But this man, whom wasn't even trying to steal my time or money, had me frozen in place on the corner of Birch and Second. I stood on the snow-covered brick sidewalk, watching the man from a distance. People walked by, but he never stopped them to talk or ask for money. He did not try the years-old guilt trip, where you look at passersby with big, gloomy eyes that say, "Please help an old man get some dinner to eat! Give me your money!" Finally I realized that my fingers were numb, so I continued on my walk back to the apartment I lived in. Assuming I was acting abnormal due to working so much overtime, I quickly shoved the old man out of my mind, and finished out my evening with dinner and an early bedtime.
The next morning on my way to work, I noticed the old man again. He was sitting on the same bench on Birch Street. Overrun with curiosity (to this day I know not why), I decided to stand from a distance and observe the old man for a while. He sat on the bench, motionless, for about fifteen minutes. Then as an elderly woman with a basket of bread walked by, the man stood up to catch her attention. She turned to him and said, "Loaf of bread, sir?" Not saying a word, the man dug in his pockets, only to find nothing. Finally he took off his old pair of gloves and held them out to the woman, yet said nothing. The woman nodded, took the gloves, and gave the man a loaf of bread.
Okay, so he was bartering. Big deal, I thought. I was beginning to think that this man was nothing unusual, nothing special
and that I must be working too much and going crazy. But, then the man did something that I can still see played out in my mind when I close my eyes. He walked away from the bread woman and down the sidewalk a few yards, stopping where there was a homeless mother and her young son sitting in the snow. They were shivering as the snowflakes fell harder. I hadn't even noticed them sitting, as my attention was solely on the old man. He held out the bread to the woman, and she hesitated, but soon took it. She nodded and smiled in appreciation. The man turned around and walked back down the street to his bench; I watched as the woman divided the bread between herself and her son. This, I thought, was very peculiar. Did the man know the woman? It hadn't appeared so
if they were more than complete strangers, wouldn't they have at least spoken to each other, or split the bread three ways?
Glancing at my pocket watch, I realized that I was already very late for work, and still had a ways to walk. I dashed off in the cold, hoping my boss wouldn't be too cross with me for being late. As it turned out, he wasn't. Usually I was on time, if not early, so he gave me a little leniency this time. It was hard to focus all day; I couldn't seem to put the old man out of my mind. Over and over again I told myself to let it go, and that it was nothing. I tried convincing myself that I was going insane due to overworking, but I knew deep down that the old man had done something commendable that morning.
The next day I decided to watch the old man again, this time leaving my apartment early so I would not be late for work. The woman and her child were not on the street. But, as usual, the old man was. Hiding behind a corner on the opposite street, I continued to spy on the homeless man. After a while a group of young adults came walking down the street, arms loaded with food items and things such as scarves and hats. I guessed that they were with a missions organization or homeless shelter or something of that sort.
One of the young men took a chunk of cheese and a hat over to the old man. "Here, sir!" he said with a smile. The old man did not smile back, nor did he speak. He simply took the gifts and nodded. The group continued down the street and eventually walked out of sight. The hat continued to lay on the man's lap, and he broke the cheese in half. Just as he was putting the cheese to his lips, a beggar girl came around the corner, dressed in rags as well. She was unusually skinny and had long, dirty brown hair. Her dress was too short, as it came above the knees, and her knee-high stockings had holes in them too numerous to count. As she walked past the man (who was still sitting on the bench), he reached his gloveless hand out to her, brushing her elbow. The girl, who couldn't have been older than twelve, stopped
and turned to the man. Having not taken a bite yet, he held out the cheese to her, and also the hat. "Thank you," she whispered, and took the items.
I couldn't believe it. What was this man thinking? Didn't he know that he himself would die without food? He was now without gloves and a hat, and just gave away a free chunk of cheese. It seemed as if he was giving away luxuries that he could not really afford to give out.
I wanted to give something back to this man. For the very fist time in my life, I wanted to give and not take. Next, I did something stupid.
Walking up to the old man, I said to him, "Sir, I have been watching you. I saw how you gave that beggar girl the cheese and hat. And I saw how you gave the woman and her child a loaf of bread the day before. Please, sir, let me give you some money. At least you can buy yourself". I was cut short. The man held his hand up, as to silence me. His eyes looked at me, almost in a cold way.
"I don't want your money, or your sympathy," he said. Then, standing up, the old man walked away from me. I stood in shock and watched him walk away until he was out of sight. How could a man be so humble that he gives away the food that may be all he has to eat for the day, yet so arrogant that he denies a stranger who offers to help? Quite infuriated over this embarrassing rejection, I continued on my way to work telling myself that I would not pay any more attention to this man.
My day was awful; I could not concentrate on my abundance of work, nor could I put the homeless man out of my mind. I sat at my desk, pondering the way in which the old man received and gave away. He said nothing, but merely handed out the objects which he wished to give. I began to see things a bit differently; I realized that I had gone about trying to help the man in the wrong way. After this startling realization, I knew exactly what to do.
The next morning I left for work before the sun was up to be sure that I beat the old man to the metal bench at Birch Street. In a brown paper bag I had packed two blueberry muffins, a bottle of milk, and some brand new leather gloves. I sat the bag on the metal bench and then retreated to behind the corner of a building across the street. I wanted to be sure that the old man received my offering. As the sun was starting to peer up over the snow laden horizon, the old man came walking up Birch Street. Upon seeing the paper sack, he looked around. After seeing no one in sight, he sat down and opened up the bag. I was satisfied. Not staying to see what he did with the items, I went on my way to work.
The next morning I did the same thing, this time leaving a knitted hat, some warm biscuits, and a piece of fruit. After the man sat down and took the package, I left for work. This continued for the next several days, me leaving him "goodies" on the bench and watching to make sure he received them. After six days of this, the man stopped me on my way home from work one evening. I was walking by him when he stuck his hand out, lightly touching my arm as I walked by. I stopped and looked at him; he was holding a red rose. Reaching a leather gloved hand out, he handed me the flower. He nodded at me, and I nodded back. Then I continued my walk home. To me, this was a sign. It was a sign from the old man that he knew I was leaving him gifts. It was a sign of gratitude from one soul to another. It was a
well-pleasing and heart-warming sign.
For the next two years I continued to leave things on the metal bench at Birch Street. Then one morning the man never showed up. Nor the day after. Or the day after that. I waited on him for almost two weeks before I came to the painful realization that something must have happened to the man. Most likely he was dead, and no one but me would ever know it. I was disheartened for a few weeks thereafter, almost depressed. Eventually I stopped waiting for the man. He was not coming back.
That homeless man taught me a lesson. Through his simple acts of generosity, that man made an impact on my life greater than anyone else I had ever known or heard of. I had been a selfish and undisciplined young man, only concerned with gaining material wealth and power. This old man changed my whole outlook on life without even speaking to me. His actions spoke louder to me than any words I had ever heard before. Even though I missed the tingles of satisfaction that I felt when I gave him little gifts, I did not let his disappearance cause me to turn back into the old me. I continued (and will continue) to pass on the man's acts of kindness towards those who have less than I. I realized that when you give what is physical, you get what is in the heart. And for that lesson, I am eternally
grateful to the old man on Birch Street.