He definitely wasn’t reading. He kept flipping through the same pages, stopping and pretending to read, his eyes darting up to look around every 30 seconds or so. He was tucked into one of the few comfy chairs, one hand flipping pages, the other resting against his cheek.
Just a dude in a Starbucks reading a book.
Oh God, please don’t let me ruin this 40 minutes alone with my husband. This was supposed to be a mini date over a four dollar coffee while the kids were at choir practice. My husband was still in line so I had time to get a grip — to squash the familiar twisting inside me.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him, his head pointed down at the book. The book was tattered and worn, sort of like him. He was in khakis, the bottoms frayed and blackened. The tops of his black rubber soled shoes were covered with knots from laces that had broken in a dozen different places. There was a rip in the shoulder of his coat. He had a black knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows. Without moving his head, he lifted his eyes from the book and looked around again, darting to the register, the door, the other corner, then back down.
On the floor next to him sat a backpack and on top of it was a neatly folded blanket, the colorful sort bought as a souvenir on a beach trip to Mexico.
My husband sat our drinks on the table as I blurted out, “That man is homeless and he’s acting like he’s reading a book so he won’t get thrown out.” The rain poured off the gutters outside the window behind the man’s chair.
“See how he glances around so quickly and goes back to pretending to read?” The man looked so uncomfortable, and even more than that, he seemed exhausted.
Imagine the burden of trying to make yourself invisible. It appeared he had succeeded. I didn’t see anyone give him so much as a glance. I did hear caffeinated laughter from people eating and drinking just days from Christmas. He was right there in our midst, but might as well have been on another planet.
“Can we buy him a gift card? Just like ten dollars.”
“Sure.” My husband took a sip of his drink, bracing himself. He is a compassionate man, helping our kids make an extra lunch before school which he then delivers to whomever he finds that day who needs it.
He’s also married to me, which means a simple cup of coffee is never simple.
Ten minutes later, after enduring my assessment of the man I’d never seen, my husband was back in line, waiting to buy a gift card, but the line was painfully slow and at some point the man got up and walked out. I ran to my husband to tell him, the man now walking down the street.
What happened is that nothing happened. We didn’t get the card. Time ran out and we had to get to Mass. We didn’t see the man as we left and drove down that same street.
I was crushed.
“Honey, I’m sure we will see someone else we can help before we even get to church.”
“That’s not the point. I wanted to help that man.”
The Starbucks man’s invisible effort was so people wouldn’t realize that most awful of truths — he didn’t belong. He was an outsider.
His situation is extreme, but we’ve all been there, on the outside of life.
I had some serious health issues as a child, and other kids made fun of me. As much as I tried, I was stuck on the outside. When I got divorced, I spent about a year on the outside, happy-hand-holding-couples on sidewalks reminding me of all I had lost.
I’ve discovered that parents of children who are sick or have disabilities are outsider experts, spending their lives fighting for their kids to have a chance to know what it feels like to be on the inside.
I think of my cousin Jamie, who died from leukemia when we were kids. He was 12 years old and the last time we were together at my grandparents, he was tiny and gray and under a blanket with my aunt on the living room couch. I was healthy and wiry, running around the farm that day with the rest of our cousins. I know with aching adult certainty that Jamie and my aunt and uncle were living in a hell of outsider-ness.
The homeless. The heartbroken. The poor. The depressed. The sick. The bullied. People out of work. Parents who’ve lost children. Children who’ve lost parents. Widows. The lonely.
Outside is never far away, threatening to ruin our plans.
I have squandered so many opportunities with excuses such as: It’s not my business. I’m sure she/he is okay and has other support. It makes me uncomfortable. What if I make them uncomfortable? I don’t have time. It’s not my place.
My go-to excuse is: It’s too much. After all, what can I do?
When I get out of my screwy head, the answer is simple. What I can do is what I can do.
So at Christmastime, with its message of Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men, I encourage us to think small. We can’t single handedly save the world, but we can buy a homeless man breakfast. We can talk to that co worker going through a divorce. We can reach out to that friend who lost her child. We can let someone get over in the lane in front of us.
This isn’t about doing something to get more likes on Facebook. It’s about doing right by each other because we know the distance between inside and outside is as a close as a freak car accident, a phone call with a bad diagnosis, or a lost job.
We lucky insiders waste so much time searching for the Christmas Spirit, thinking the right gift or movie or batch of cookies or get together will fill the space within us.
The older I get, the more I’m convinced it’s a holy space that can only be filled by acts of selflessness.
On the way home from Mass, we stopped at a Waffle House where my husband had been struck by a young boy who sweeps floors for them and works so hard, head always down, almost apologizing for his existence.
While we waited in the car, he went inside and thanked him for his work and told him he’d forgotten his tip, and handed him 20 dollars. My husband said the young man was stunned and confused.
Then he smiled.
Let’s do what we can to bring the outside, in.