Monday, June 23, 2014

A Beggar's State of Mind


Zach and a team of volunteers in the soup kitchen
On Friday night I made my way downtown to reunite with Rick and a few old friends at a swanky...swanky bar.  The tavern was packed like a can of sardines with a section of post-grads out in front clustered with familiar faces.  I met Rick right away and began to compile a mental image of what he'd been up to for the last month or so.  He had been doing very well.  Shortly thereafter, Rick was rudely interrupted by the one and only Samantha Smith.  Sam has pretty much embraced the sorority girl stereotype and given it a big bear hug.  She made her entrance by aimlessly putting her hands on our shoulders to say hello.  As the words stumbled out of her, she gave me an update on her life that hadn't really improved since the last update I received from her.  Suddenly this conversation was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder from none other than Katie Clemens, another sorority girl whom I happened to know.  She literally gave me hug and then immediately launched into a monologue of how miserable her life was.  She said she was changing as a person because of her work, in a bad way.  She babbled, "someone told me that they wanted to crucify me the other day!" in a half crying, half defeated voice.  I told her that there was no reason why she shouldn't pursue her dream of working with refugees.  I told her that life is too short to pursue only the paycheck that cannot make her genuinely happy, only genuinely comfortable.  I told her that it's worth it to pursue what she loves and put up with the uncertainty because life itself is uncertain.  I appreciate her trust in me to say these things and I reciprocated with an update on my life helping to run the soup kitchen.  I hope she found it somewhat inspiring.  To make my exit proper, I felt obliged to buy the girls a round of drinks, which left me with a $22 dent in my wallet.  On my way out I booked it to avoid any more stories of how boring people's lives had become.  I'd be lying if I said it wasn't refreshing to see familiar faces, but the highlight of my evening did not happen yet.

Zach preparing turkey for the kitchen
On my walk to the Washington Blue Line station I saw a seated man in the center of the bridge wearing a familiar color.  About a hundred strides closer and the faded Grateful Dead T-shirt jogged my memory.  The hooded figure underneath the street lamp was none other than James Brown, one of my favorite guests.  I hadn't seen him at our place for a while because his brother had recently passed away.  "James?" I called out as I closed the distance. "Zaaaach! Hiya doin man?", "Good, good.  How about you? We haven't seen you in a minute?"  He verbally painted a picture of his situation and I felt for him.  He'd been spending time with his mother to ease the pain of his brother's passing.  He also showed me a funeral brochure that included a picture of him lacking his normal bushy black beard and the addition of two gold earrings.  Despite the facial differences, it was the same bubbly and joyous James in the picture.  When I saw him he had the Bible and Chicken Soup for the Soul in his lap, showing his desire to improve.  A desire that I didn't see in the people I had just left at the swanky place.  His inspiration showed.  Despite the recent death of his brother, living at his mother's place, and begging on the streets, James had aspirations.  He had plans to go to Alaska and work on a crab boat.  He said he felt called there by some spiritual tractor beam, and the fact that he doesn't like the hot weather here.  From my perspective his reasoning did seem a little unrealistic, but I could see the hope and determination in his eyes that rendered my perspective meaningless.  It was keeping him going and it inspired me.  His optimism was infused in every word that came out of his mouth.  This was the first time in my life where I genuinely wanted to give money to a beggar, rather than act out of guilt.  He deserved that dream, whether it made sense to me or not.  As I walked away I yelled, "I love you man. Stop by one of these days."  "I love you too, and I will, I will."  I never saw James again, but our interaction that night is etched into my memory.

Gracie, Mike, Sassi, Ephi, and Zach 
That incident put the entire night into perspective for me.  The kids I met at the tavern were all so anxious about their future that they needed to spend $9 on drinks to ease the stress. Meanwhile James, the beggar on the street, is trying to save literally every penny he can to pursue his dream of which he is doubtless will happen for him.  That night I spent $22 on a round of drinks and gave $2 to James.  Looking back, I'd much rather it'd have been the other way around.  Supporting a dream and fostering a distraction are two very different entities.  I wish the entire bar filled with alumni had met James that night.  Maybe he could talk some sense into them, or at least put their lives into perspective.  I don't ever want to forget that night, which is why I am writing this.  This is a reminder that the future can be a state of mind.  You can be anxious about its uncertainty, or you can be sure that everything will be alright no matter what obstacles stand in your way.  Either way, you are right. 

"If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right." -Henry Ford

*All names have been changed

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