That was the question written on his sign as he stood on the side of the road at the exit ramp. The temperature was a frigid 28 degrees. In the South, anything below 40 degrees is freezing. He was in his mid-thirties, age wise, with dark hair and a beard. His waist-length jacket covered as much as he could shrink into it, and his toboggan hat didn’t do much to hide the dirt on his face. His four-legged, furry companion sat stoically next to him wearing his own strategically ripped sweater, one size too small.
I never knew his name, but he stuck with me in my mind for the rest of the day. I made up stories in my head about the path that led him to that exit ramp. How does it happen? Maybe he lost a job where he was only one paycheck away from being broke. Maybe his wife and children left him to move in with her parents. Maybe he was an addict and drugs took over his life. Maybe he tried as hard as he could, and it wasn’t enough.
Could he turn it around now? How would he manage to interview for a job with no clean clothes and no transportation? How could he think about interviewing for a job when the greatest challenge ahead of him today is surviving hunger and freezing temperatures? How could he sustain a job with no place to sleep, shower, or clean his clothes? A million scenarios flutter past my eyes, but I can only feel the pain of my own experiences. Could I even imagine his?
Although I don’t carry cash, I always have an assorted compilation of random things in my car. I have things like wool socks that I’ve picked up at a store, running gloves from a running expo, the occasional toboggan hat on sale, or random coats or shoes awaiting a goodwill drop off.
I smiled and looked him in the eye as I rolled my window down. “Hey, Mister, are you interested in some warm socks?”
He moved quickly to my car as his pup watched keenly without moving. “Yes, ma’am, I sure am.”
As I handed him four pair of wool socks, he smiled back at me and said, “Thank you so much. God bless you, ma’am.”
The light turned green. I rolled up my window and adjusted the heat in my car. It was hard to see the road for a few minutes as my heart leaked out of my eyes. I’ve been to the place where I tried as hard as I could, and it wasn’t enough. I’ve felt the hopelessness that comes with not having a safety net. I made a mental note to carry one extra granola bar in my car all the time, more than one pair of running gloves, a few extra pair of wool socks, and some $5 gift cards for fast food. These are such small things, but they are strings in someone else’s safety net. Such small acts that say to another human being “I see you.”
“DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW SHITTY THIS IS?”
No, sir, I don’t, but I don’t want you to know it alone.
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