the homeless man and you

I talked to a frightened mammal today. His tail was between his legs. Maybe it was you.

I saw him before he approached me, actually. Hovering nervously next to the building where they sell the lottery tickets and 5-hour energy shots. The drab overcoat and week’s worth of scruff weren’t as telling as his body-language. He was scared and nervous. He didn’t want to be doing what he was doing. He just didn’t know what else to do instead.

As I finished pumping the gas into my car, he approached me. “Hey, I’m really sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you had any change or anything, because I really need some food.”

“Come with me in there,” I said, pointing to the building, “And I’ll buy you a sandwich.”

“I’m not allowed in there, sir. I’ll do something for it, though, really! I’ll wash your windows…”

Just then a small, professional, middle-aged Indian man came out of the building, piping “Hey you! You must go now! You are not allowed in here!” like a brand new plastic pipe-organ, practicing scales in trochees.

So the mammal scampered away. I could almost see his tail between his legs.


This kind of thing always raises very complex emotions. It’s hard not to feel bad for someone in so much pain and with so few options. But it’s also hard for most people to imagine a sequence of events that would lead a person to that place that does not involve a series of bad choices along the way.

So how should one react in that situation? It’s not my place to say. I’m not going to say you should give a guy like that food or money. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t.

But I will say one thing: don’t you dare look down on him. Don’t you dare pretend like he’s different from you.

It’s an easy defensive maneuver, and everyone does it unconsciously on some level. “That could never happen to me,” you think, “Because I’m just not that kind of person.”

But that’s a lie. He is you.

Have you ever felt trapped? Have you ever been scared? Have you ever been so embarrassed you couldn’t bring yourself to do what you knew was right?

Remember the prank you pulled at work that you didn’t get fired for?

Remember the education that your parents could afford?

Remember the uncle who’s connections meant that your teenage shoplifting experiment ended up getting you just a “warning” instead of a record?

Remember the neighborhood you lived in where you could make friends with people who weren’t drug dealers?

Everyone makes bad choices. And so have you. Some you got away with. Some you didn’t.

Just remember that things could have gone differently for you, in each of a million, billion different moments in your history.

In an alternate universe, that scared mammal on the curb IS you.

You, if you had been caught at that prank in your youth. You, if you hadn’t grown up in a neighborhood without drug dealers. You, if you had made just one more bad decision than you actually made.

You, if your life had gone just a little bit differently along the way.