Most every morning, I cut up fresh berries for my kids to have for breakfast. If I’m working, I also pour whatever berries are left in the strainer into a container for me to take to work. I have a hot pink and a bright green container, and when one is being washed, I carry the other. My favorite is the hot pink one.
This morning, I parked my car at the salon and started to walk inside for a haircut before my Spring Break trip. The salon is on a busy street in midtown Houston, across from a car spa and quick lube. Cars whirred by in both directions like the to-do list in my head.
“Where are the people like me in Houston?” I heard from my right. “Excuse me?” I asked, seeing the man on the sidewalk, walking north. “This is the strangest city,” he said. “I can’t find people like me.”
I smiled at the man and started to move on. “I’m from Omaha and I just got extradited and I thought I had a cousin in Sugar Land, but I’m trying to get to 290. Ma’am I’ve been on these streets for 3 days. My skin is so dry.” He showed me the skin on his forearm, ashy and excoriated like so many of the forearms for which I prescribed creams this week.
He told me he’d been to a shelter but didn’t have an ID to prove who he was. He was trying to find a police station to print out an ID so he could find a place to stay. He told me things I knew to be true (his skin was dry) and things that gave me pause (he knows Warren Buffett personally and Mr. Buffett once left a brand new car in the driveway for him). He mentioned he once won the state championship in Nebraska for wrestling.
His teeth were missing and his eyes were yellow. I wondered if he’d had any medical care to check for liver disease. I have no idea where he had been or where he would end up. I knew I didn’t want him to follow me into the salon.
He also stayed a respectable distance from me, as only someone who has felt the shame of people shrinking away from him knows to do.
When he inevitably asked for money for breakfast, I told him I actually didn’t have cash on me, but when I looked in my wallet, I had a single dollar. “Well that’ll buy a bag of chips!” He smiled.
About to walk away, I saw yesterday’s hot pink container of berries that I forgot to eat in the corner of my purse. “You like berries?” I asked him. “I haven’t had berries in a real long time, but I don’t want to eat your lunch. Is that your lunch?” He asked. “No, it’s not,” I answered, knowing I have a refrigerator full of berries at home.
I passed him my favorite pink container full of berries and saw him smile. “Well now today is a good day because I’ve been blessed with these berries,” he said. “Thank you.”
I watched him walk down the busy street in his tattered clothes and wondered what would become of him. Would he meet up with his cousin from Omaha? Would he find a place to sleep?
The contrast of my relative wealth to this man on the streets made me stop and pause and brought tears to my eyes. Because I work with children, I always ponder the crooked path that takes a newborn wrapped in pink and blue striped newborn blankets to an adult sleeping on the streets.
How many knock-outs can one human take? Where do some people fall through the cracks? And how can we do better to take care of each other? I am in awe of some of the people I see in my practice: foster parents, relatives, friends who step up to care for children when the child’s own parents are unable to do so, temporarily or not.
I wish my heart could be as gold as some of the foster parents and guardians I see who give these troubled kids a soft place to land while they’re trying to find their way in a tough world.
Everybody is somebody’s once-child, held skin-to-skin at the breast. I will say a prayer for this man today and hope he finds the services he needs. And I will think of him when I serve my teens their daily berries, at least for the next few days.
Unfortunately, I will forget about this jaundiced man with the dry skin sooner than I would like to admit. I will go back to taking my fresh berries for granted. I’ll get my expensive haircut and go to my soft bed at the house we rented for Spring Break. But for this day, at least, I will remember. He was blessed to have berries. And I was blessed to meet him.