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Lunch With A Man (homeless)

by Lumiere (writer), NYC, June 21, 2008

Homelessness, the Mortgage crisis and the American Family

Riding on a subway in NYC reminds me of being inside a giant tin can, sometimes when you step onto the train you never know what suprises might await you inside. Today, it happened to be a man (homeless) who captured my curiosity as he wandered onto the other end of the train. He was about 6 feet tall, in his late fifties and was wearing a wrinkle free black t-shirt, a pair of pressed blue jeans and faded black work boots. The thing that struck me about him was although he looked tired he was very polite and well mannered (gentlemen are a rare breed in this city) and he looked well groomed with perfectly trim hair and a recently shaved face. He made it towards me with his head bowed, in a shaky voice and trembling hands, he clenched an upside down hat full of change as he said, "Ladies and gentlemen; I don't rob, I don't steal. I'm a Vietnam Vet who is just hungry and if you could spare some change or if you have some food to share, I would appreciate your kind donation." As he raised his head I made it a point to look him in the eyes as a gesture of acknowledging his presence in the world and I smiled. He smiled back, lowered his eyes once again and said, "I like your hair." Immediately, something inside me told me that I needed to buy this man lunch. Some might call me a sucker for a beggar but I think it takes a lot of courage for a grown man to humble himself to ask for food and frankly I find it heartbreaking that he even has to beg for it in a world full of so much abundance. The train suddenly came to an abrupt stop, the subway doors opened and he moved with the current of people flowing into the train station. I followed him as he limped to the elevator.

As the man (homeless) pressed the elevator button he saw me out of the corner of his eye, smiled and said "Are you following me? " I humourously replied with a smile, "Why yes I am. Your hungry and I'm taking you to lunch." "Alright, but are you taking me to McDonalds? " "No sir. I have no intentions of killing you or clogging your arteries with greasy food." We both laughed.

Together, Danie the man and I talked as we made our way to Cafe 34, at 34th and 8th avenue. There at the cafe they had a large selection of salads, sandwiches and hot meals for us to choose from. Danie, after much thought ordered a freshly made, plain hamburger with a regular pepsi. He was smiling from ear to ear with excitement like a child at a toy store. I asked him if he wanted fries? Danie responded with a laugh, apparently he was trying to watch his weight and health since he was getting older, the fries would only spoil him and put him to sleep. Humor in spite of homelessness, definately an invaluable resource. While we waited for the food, I called my friend and invited her to join us, she obliged and I placed an order for another salad.

Together, we took our trays of food outside on the patio so we could enjoy the beautiful weather. Danie began telling us about his life story, that his mother was a single parent and she raised him with a firm hand to keep him out of trouble. He said that his mother trained him well for the military, he was drafted at age 17 and was shipped away to Vietnam. I joked with him about how a mother can look at you -regardless of your age- with the "your in trouble glance" and you freeze in your tracks. It is one of those looks that can melt through pure steel. It ranks right up there with a parent calling you by your full name: "Maria Conchita Gonzales Suerto you better xyz or else. " We laughed at a simple truth, a mothers love and discipline is universal.

During Vietnam, Danie was shot in the leg and returned to the United States. His mother had passed away and since he had no siblings, was left alone to recover from his injury. The wounds on his body healed much faster than the wounds in his heart or the nightmares and flashbacks in his head. In order to cope, the doctors gave Danie meth and he was hooked. His benefits began to run out and unable to continue to pay for his healthcare and medication, Danie's military buddy turned him onto the new 'rich persons drug' during the seventies, cocaine. Once cocaine ran it's course, crack became the new drug of choice. Strung out, addicted and financially disabled, unable to comprehend lifes responsibilities; the bills began to pile up and Danie could not make his rent. It was then that he began to painfully sober up through heavy withdrawals and he decided to let go of his possessions and go into a city run drug treatment center. There, Danie cleaned up his addictionbut lost every material possession in exchange for his life. He learned quickly, at the fatal stabbing of a bunk mate that it was safer to sleep in the street than be in a city run shelter. Danie has been homeless ever since, sober and attending AA meetings for twenty years. The money donations Danie receives from kind people on the subway either pay for him to have a hot meal, or give hime an opportunity to rent a room at a small hotel and take a hot shower. There are times when he is lucky with his donations and times when he goes without a bite to eat for an entire week. What makes the difference for him is when strangers extend a hand of kindness and sharing.

As a treat I get Danie some vanilla ice cream for dessert, his eyes are wide with excitement. Danie explains to us that just because he is homeless, does not mean he has to look or smell homeless. He proudly says that he bought his pants for $7.99 and his shirt for $2.00 at a discount retailer down the street. I quietly think to myself about how much we can waste on just buying breakfast. Danie takes a bite of his ice cream, looks up with delight at us and says, "Thank you for being so kind hearted. Most people, when they get educated, forget about those of us that go without." I smile at him, "We are both part of the same human family. The only thing that makes us different is I have a job (which pays me straight commission), a roof over my head and family to fall back on if necessary. The creator loves you no less than he loves me."

Once the ice cream is done, we gather our things and head out the door. We invite Danie to go to church with us next Wednesday and he seems quiet interested, in exchange he thanks us with hugs. Then we go our seperate ways.

Danie serves as a reminder to me that over a million people have already become homeless due to the recent mortgage crisis, an extra ten million families are expected to become homeless and flood the shelters this year as a result; men, women and children are not immune to poverty. The side-stepping subject of homelessness reminds me of a saying we used when I worked in Human Resources management and had to fire an employee, " If you ever get use to firing people, you are in the wrong job." Now when I see a homeless person on the street or sleeping in a subway station I think to myself; If we as a community or as a nation ever get use to mass suffering or homelessness, we have failed one another by losing our compassion and love for humanity. Money cannot be worth more than human dignity and maintaing a decent quality of life.

Each and everyone of us should be asking ourselves how and why our government is failing us by not providing legislation to protect the American Family from corrupt realtors, real estate price gouging and mortgage lending sharks.



About the Writer

Native Texan full of Southern Charm, ;) Art Director and Fashion Photographer with a background in Luxury Apparel. Producer of a Television show called " Art4Charity " that spotlights Philanthropists, non-profits, volunteers, and companies doing positive deeds around the world. Volunteer Art Therapy teacher to homeless children and activist.
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5 comments on Lunch With A Man (homeless)

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By 'Mean' Mike Duffau on June 22, 2008 at 04:04 am

i really like this story. there's this homless guy i made friends with. his name is freddie and whenever i see him i take some time and talk to him and i give him a few bucks. he's a better friend than most people who have it all!

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By Lumiere on June 22, 2008 at 07:51 pm

Hello Mike- having lunch with Danie was definately an humbling experience.  It makes you take an inventory of your blessings.

Morgana- maybe I should have clarified but I was not referring to Crystal Meth.  And I agree with you about the frienship statement, friends with integrity are few and far between. Most people prefer just to play games, I prefer to write.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 23, 2008 at 10:47 am

A really interesting and complicated story -- like a lot of the "help" out there, yours comes with a grounding in the church -- and I respect faith as much as anyone, but isn't there a place for human kindness that is on our OWN account, simply as members of a human race? Why bring "the creator" into it? This is a continually problematic issue for those who cannot afford expensive rehabilitation and counseling and turn to AA, NA, and other such organizations who base the ability to overcome addiction with a turn to God (a replacement, still external to the self) instead of individual physical and mental strength...

It was a nice thing to do -- but complicated, yes. Even though it's "nice" and I often speak to and give money to the homeless it's as often as not a foolhardy move... because I felt like you I began seeking out information about shelters and soupkitchens, and have worked in the latter on and off for many years... what you will learn is that there is a choice being made by many homeless who learn to enjoy other aspects of living off the grid, subsisting at the edge, not answering to anyone. This isn't the case in the mortgage crisis, which is incredibly terrible, but in NY as in most urban places we who are not wealthy will never, ever own a home and learn to live in closet like spaces in dangerous areas and persist in working 4 jobs to pay our way.

In various capacities, I've been in conversation with the homeless for years in New York and have also had partners, family and friends who have out of lack of funds been at the wiles of the Medicare system here as well as living in SRO's or on the street -- it deserves serious attention that the system traps people in a cycle of dependency... but the dependency is checked: every single day in NYC there are soup kitchens that give free meals (usually hot) to as many people who come, and there is no limit on seconds. Many provide take-away food for storage and so forth...

There's the whole teach a man to fish thing... and the system is reliant on both the homeless remaining where they are AND on the people who maintain it by not becoming actually involved and "helping" the homeless, ie: giving them just enough to get from here to there. If you really want to help, go volunteer, and find information about WHERE the free, and not dangerous resources are (the quaker run shelters are safe and wonderful, for instance) and offer this information.

And yes -- the churches often DO run these kitchens, and I am not going to suggest that faith cannot help people "down on their luck" but such a phrase is complicated. Drug abuse is complicated. Homelessness based on drug abuse is complicated. Housing in NY is complicated. But all of these issues were in this story, brushed over... perhaps best to stick to "human connection" with the homeless, which is true and very much in the purvue of such an article, rather than attempting to rationalize and judge the various systematic issues, unless you have done some research?

I think if you are interested, you should. I can give you a list of soup kitchens to work at if you'd like. Bring a church group.

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By Lumiere on June 24, 2008 at 02:43 pm

Actually I do volunteer at a homeless youth shelter in NYC, so I am quite familar with the statistics on homelessness and sadly, how many parents dump their children for drugs, a quick fix or desperation to be loved- even if the relationship is abusive.  However, this article is about taking the time to have a one-on-one conversation with a man who is homeless that is usually stepped over as he sleeps on the street or ignored as he begs for change or food to eat by those of us who are blessed. Danie asked us where we were headed and we told him to church, he expressed that he wanted to attend so we invited him along. Taking him to lunch was not about kindness based on religious conversion.

My reference to the creator loving Danie just as much as myself is about the fact that people who have made mistakes in their life are often afraid to step into ANY spiritual or religious institution because they do not feel worthy; homeless or not.  Just because I have a job and an income does not make me better than Danie. A child of the Creator will always be, regardless of life circumstance, abundance or lack of finances and we are loved equally.

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By Ladymaggic on July 05, 2008 at 11:11 pm

Interesting...I had a year of being penniless and homeless, and finally living in an old broken down shack and living off discards at Victoria market where the vendors got to know me and would save me their 'better' scraps. I bought my clothes from the Salvation Army shops for 50 cents an item, and washed at public toilets, transport stations and gymnasiums.

People get to know you and give you things, like an egg or ripe fruit, and I also ate at the Hari Krishna places where they only asked for a prayer in return. The charity is usually from traders and never the public who look at you like scum, which I wasn't. Even my family refused to help..."don't come here dressed like that...", and how do you explain, this is your best outfit.

I went to my son's wedding dressed in a peacock blue Designer Italian dress bought for $5 at an Op Shop, and they could not understand why I did not donate the flowers....yes, I was a top ranking florist prior to this episode.

Its good to know you were kind to a dero....most people aren't and what changed me was a prior dero who I gave charity to standing behind me in a dole queue saying, "what happened?.......Now you and I are equal..." I knew we weren't, and I worked hard to get out of it..

End of a very long, and a little bitter, story....I know I would not like to return to those days as I have been there and done that...

Don't give the Dero a dinner...give him at least $5...he needs that far more. He knows where he can get a free feed, and needs the cash more.

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