It was a late summer day. Warm, with a hint of autumn in the breeze. I was in Pittsburgh with some time to spare, and had found my way, accompanied by a fellow traveler, to a public square in the heart of downtown. Our flight home was later that afternoon, so we had a few hours to get a bite of lunch, enjoy a beer, and take in a few sights. We were sitting outside Primanti Brothers—a popular local sandwich shop situated against the southern edge of the square—and I was reflecting on an encounter I had had just moments earlier.
We had been standing in line outside the restaurant, waiting to be seated. The square was busy: cars lined the curbs, while others passed by us in a steady succession, groups of young adults, exuberant and lightly intoxicated before the start of their new college year, crossed the square boisterously, children played, and men sat playing chess at tables under a canopy of trees; while the wide, brick-paved sidewalks which ran the perimeter of the square allowed the attentive and well-adapted to circumnavigate without injury, but for the disoriented, danger was imminent.
New sights, new sounds and crowds of people disorient me. As I was taken up with these sensory overloads, a very large man passed by me on the sidewalk, and knocked me off my feet. I quickly apologized to him, assuming that we both had inadvertently run into each other, and as I offered my apology to him, he mumbled, “You shouldn’t make a person walk through the dirt” as he continued on his way. I looked down, and sure enough, directly where I was standing, the sidewalk narrowed to accommodate a tree planted alongside the street, and he had to trudge across the dirt, off the pavement to get around me. As I steadied myself and regained my balance, I turned and watched him continue on his way; he was hunched over, and lumbered as he walked, he wore earphones, and walked with his head down. For such a large man—he must have been well over six feet tall, even bowing down as he was, and broad shouldered—he seemed to disappear as he walked.
What a contradiction, I thought to myself, what a living paradox—a man who attempts to vanish from beneath the sun, while simultaneously staking his place on the sidewalk through violence. I understood him. Or at least, I understood my perception of him. Maybe he wasn’t a paradox at all, but rather two expressions of the same desperation: at one moment retreating from his existence in despair, and then aggressively asserting his existence the next.
After lunch, my friend and I got coffee at Nicholas Coffee Co., an old shop tucked into the northeast corner of the square. A sign over the door celebrates 100 years of serving the people of Pittsburgh. Other signage on the building façade announce their wares: freshly roasted coffee, tea and spices, imported foods, nuts and cigars. Upon entering through the front door, one is pleasurably assaulted with the sensual aromas of coffee, tea, cigars, candies, and the aging wood of the floorboards, beams, and rafters overhead. Breathing in this intoxicating mixture was like an olfactory massage, which soothed the mind and the emotions. We lingered in this place, perusing the shelves which were filled with uncovered memories from our childhoods—candies neither of us had seen in years: goo-goo clusters, banana taffy—while marinating in aromas which transported our minds to faraway places: Havana, India, Columbia, and Switzerland among others, and to journeys by sea in ancient ships, timbers creaking under the stresses of wind and wave.
As we walked together back to our rental car, after making a few purchases at the coffee shop, my friend ducked into a nearby restaurant to find a restroom, while I waited outside, standing on the pavement. The sun shone brilliantly against the yellow painted wall of the adjoining building, and it warmed the red brick pavers beneath my feet. The paving widened in this place, and I stood there alone for a moment, until suddenly a man appeared before me, about ten paces away, heading in my direction. He glanced back and forth, to his left and to his right, searching but seeing nothing. He walked slowly—with aimless steps—and appeared bewildered and desperate. He interested me and he frightened me. I am a domesticated man like most others around me, but I could see that he was different from me, he was wild—though not altogether feral—and he was wounded.
I have met others like him in my life. Others similar to him, and yet different, unique and complicated, with stories and histories both incredible and prosaic. Lives that demand something of me, and reveal something even deeper, and evoke subtle, beautiful changes in my heart if I let them, and also sometimes break me. He hadn’t yet seen me, and I felt a thrill in the face of this unknown moment, saturated with possibility and potential danger. Compelled to reach out to him, I called out and simply said, “Hi!” while staring directly and intently at him.
His eyes locked with mine and his aimlessness was instantly replaced with urgency. He lurched forward towards me, and, as if propelled by some hidden and unknown power, he shuffled up to me, gliding actually, like a boat, with sails suddenly filled, taking flight across the water. As he approached he called out to me saying, “I’m homeless now!” and I asked him, “How did that happen?”
As we stood face to face, he began his story, he described how he regularly paid his rent, four-hundred dollars per month, to a couple that he shared a house with; however, the husband decided he wanted more money this morning. They argued, and the husband grabbed him by the neck and began choking him. He showed me with his hands how this was done, grabbing at his own neck, simulating strangulation. –“I pay my bills, I save money but I can’t get it until Tuesday because of the long holiday weekend. The bank’s closed. Now I’m homeless. I need to put a stop payment on the check too.” –“I’m so sorry that happened,” I told him. –“I don’t want to panhandle” he continued, “I didn’t even drink yet, I only had one beer.” He says this as he leans over and points into the case of Budweiser that he was carrying, showing me that only one beer was missing. I understand the meaning of this gesture—to assure me that it wasn’t his fault—that he is merely the victim in the situation, since he hadn’t yet started drinking for the day.
“I’ll help you,” I said, “I can give you some money.” He looked at me for a moment, then said that he could pay me back; that he would certainly pay me back. But the money didn’t matter to me. His story was of interest however, and I asked for more details, if he were willing to share them with me. He was very willing, and he shared for a while all about what had happened to him. As he paused in the telling of his story, I pulled out my wallet and looked to see what I had left. There were fifteen dollars in there which I handed to him. We regarded each other closely—standing only inches apart, looking into the other’s eyes—and, I believe, that we truly saw each other for a brief moment; we saw our common humanity which is typically hidden beneath differences, our brotherhood revealed, apart from our widely varied experiences and backgrounds.
He opened his arms slowly and cocked his head to the side deferentially, and moved closer to embrace me. As we embraced I was softened by his softness. Often when embracing, particularly between strangers, one can feel the other tensing their bodies slightly, as a barrier to the closeness each desires, as a final protection against the abandonment required by true intimacy. This man disarmed me, as a true brother, with sincerity and without artifice. He buried his head against my shoulder and I felt his body convulse, as I held him. Was he crying? Yes, I think he was crying. This touched me and brought time to a standstill within me. I stood amazed and surprised, while holding him close to me, sensing that this was one of those rare moments when one human actually encounters another human in spirit and in truth. I felt gratitude for this man.
He was about ten years older than me, likely in his early sixties or late fifties. He had gray hair, curling out from under a Pittsburgh Steelers cap, and he wore a Steelers t-shirt, and faded jeans. In one hand he carried his case of beer, and in the other he held a fragment of cardboard, presumably with some request for assistance written on the side, which he held closely to his chest, as if to prevent anyone from seeing what was written there. I thought to myself, “another paradox”—a man searching for help yet not wanting to let anyone know he needs help. His nose had been broken in the past, possibly multiple times; I could tell this by the serpentine path it traced down his face. His face was covered with gray and white stubble. His dark brown eyes had calmed now, finding rest for a moment, no longer in a frenzied flight, as they settled on me.
My friend had returned from the restaurant now, and the three of us talked a bit longer together. It was clear that the homeless man regarded us as friends now, his level of comfort was evident as he cracked several jokes, and talked more freely, with less anxiety in his voice and body. Twice more he opened his arms and hugged me. Was this man teaching me gratitude, or was God? I smiled, and shared in his gratitude, feeling the presence of unspoken joy in our midst. Something he said, in passing, caught my attention, he said, “I don’t really care much about things…I want love.” I want love. That statement rung in my ears like an anthem, a refrain I had heard sung by so many others that I have met, usually sung silently, in fear, sung with longing, and even sometimes sung with violence.
He was telling the truth and I understood him. We want love. We want acceptance. We want someone to truly see us, and to prove to us that we are worthy of love, right here and right now, as we are. This kind of love can be elusive, often hiding just over the precipice, just the other side of the abyss; love that is found only in the face of our fear, only after we reach out past the darkness of our selfishness, and penetrate the life of another.