He stared through my blue eyes and made me feel exposed. Naked.
Like he could read every thought in my mind, including the ugly ones ... thoughts about how I generally ignore homeless people on the streets because there are too many of them; it's not my problem that they put themselves in that situation; they should get help at a charity; if I give them money, they'll just spend it on liquor anyway.
I averted my eyes and entered the Subway shop to pig out at the 50-mile mark of a 100-mile ride. I sat down with my back toward the old man so that I might stop his knowing gaze from clanging around inside my chest: Once glance from him had thrown a monkey wrench into my rib cage.
I tried to eat my foot-long ham and cheese and rest in air conditioned peace. It was by District standards a hot day and I knew I needed a little break from the sun during an eight-hour ride.
About four inches into my meal, I felt compelled to get up and give the man five bucks. He thanked me. Five clams were all I had on me and I thought it was the least I could do for a man who wasn't begging for money and hadn't asked me for a thing. There were no stories about running out of gas or needing Metro money or his wife needing to go to the doctor. I simply told the man that I hoped that $5 could help him get something he needed. I barely looked at his face because it was too painful for me. There were too many bad story lines chiseled into it and more pain in his eyes than I wanted to know about.
I returned to my sandwich but made it only two inches further. It was hot out there. I was sweating like a dog and I'm a conditioned weekend warrior athlete. I told the folks behind the counter not to throw my stuff away, that I'd be right back. I walked across the street to the CVS pharmacy on the corner of Connecticut and bought the man the largest bottle of Gatorade it had.
"It's hot out here," I said, handing the drink to the man. He nodded his head, said thanks, and I went back inside.
Eight inches into my sandwich I could eat no more.
I looked at the old man again and then looked down at myself. An unexpected feeling of grief began to drown me in a flood as I sat there observing that I was wearing a $100 shirt that pulls the sweat away from my body, $80 shorts that provide some relief from the pressure of riding, and $100 shoes designed to help me go faster. I use them all to perch myself on top of a $1,300 bike so I can explore the city. Outside was a fellow human being in a raggedy t-shirt and dirty jeans who sat on a 50-cent milk crate just trying to survive another day in the city.
Racial differences aside, we're all related to each other in both a genetic and a moral sense, I thought. I can't let him just sit there and suffer today. I was not raised to ignore a moment like this. God has given me too many blessings to shut my eyes tighter in a moment like this. I've got to do at least a little something more.
I stepped outside and asked the old man if I could buy him lunch. It took a minute for my question to register and it was a little hard for me to follow some of his responses. He said that since he hurt his ribs, he has to watch his cholesterol. He can't eat mayonnaise. I told him I'd like to get him a sandwich that didn't have mayonnaise on it and that he could have anything he wanted. He said a turkey sandwich would be good. I walked him through the vegetables and condiments and he told me he wanted lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and ketchup.
I went back inside and placed the order. A woman behind the counter got a little teary eyed and told me I was making a very nice gesture. "It's not much," I said, humbly. "But at least it's something, right? I mean, it's hot out there."
I gave the man his foot long, chips and drink and told him that I hoped he liked it. He nodded his head and thanked me again. "No need," I told him, cheerfully. "It's out here today and I want you to take it easy."
I returned to my own sandwich and was able to get it down. I exited the Subway shop a minute later just as the man was finishing his meal and we crossed eyes again. This time he looked vulnerable, like he was feeling that I was looking inside his shell. I tapped my heart a few times with my right hand and smiled at him as if to say that I had his back today.
I hopped back on my Trek and pulled away. I knew I hadn't solved a District-wide issue. I knew I hadn't done anything to solve the old man's underlying problems. At best, I just helped lift one man's hunger for a few hours and let him know that someone cared about him. At least for one afternoon anyway.
I tried not to think about what would happen to him tomorrow or how I'd react on my ride the next day, when the homeless would likely just go back to being a faceless blur that I zip past in my fancy shirt and speedy little shoes.