He approached me just outside of Starbucks.
I sipped my coffee in the blistering cold in an attempt to keep warm. According to the news it was 16 degrees. It felt more like hiking in Siberia rather than just making the trek to the subway station. But as I stood there, the man suddenly appeared and asked me for change.
He hesitated before he did so. I noticed that he put his hand out in front of him a lot, as if gauging the distance between his body and mine. Then I stared up into the face beneath the hood and realized why. The man was mostly blind. One eye was coated over with a cataract. The other showed signs of previous operations; a distorted iris flashed with a green so sheer it made his gaze seem glassy.
"I don't mean to trouble you, miss. It's just that's it so cold out here. I haven't had anything to eat all day."
"It's no trouble," I said. I placed my coffee on the ground and started looking for spare change to give him. As I did, I asked him his name.
"I'm Steven," he said. "Been out here a while now. And your name is?"
When I told him, he smiled broadly and put his hand out for me to shake. We chatted outside for a while. There were curious stares from strangers. I'm a small woman standing there in my black peacoat, a hat and a leather shoulder bag beside a man whose green jacket looked like it was a remnant from a war zone. His pants were scruffy and threadbare, looming over shoes that had lost their outer coloring ages ago. If not for the eyes, his face could have passed for Santa Clause. White eyebrows and a bushy beard protruded out of the shadows of the hood.
He spent a few minutes telling me an old joke. "Guy walks into the doctor's office after he had some tests done. The doctor looks at him and says, 'Well, son, I've got bad news and worse news. Which one do you want first?' The guy stares at him, wants to run smack dab out of that office. But he says, 'Give me the bad news.' The doctor shakes his head. 'It's cancer. You've got three weeks to live.' The guy lets out a shaky breath. 'Well, what the hell is the worse news?' This time the doctor says, 'Tests got hung up. I should have told you this two weeks ago."
Words can't fully do it justice: the shaggy man on the sidewalk, his full body engaged in telling the joke, the howl of laughter mingled with mine. He started telling me about his great-grandmother, how she's so old now that she can't even comprehend the new additions to the family. He spoke with pride about his brother who married a Taiwanese woman and just had a son out in New Mexico.
I listened to him, just letting him talk. After a while, I asked him how he managed to get around if he could barely see. He recoiled a bit at the question.
"How did you know that?" he said.
"Because I looked into your eyes. I can see the cataract. The other one looks like it had surgery on it."
And then came the unveiling of the story I've heard so often on the streets. Steven ended up losing everything because he'd gotten sick. "I couldn't work. I had these eye problems, then the doc is saying I need cardiac surgery. They said I couldn't afford the real surgery I needed, but asked if I'd want to participate in some experimental procedure. I told him I ain't no medical guinea pig. Then I had to pay for the eye surgery, but the other one started a cataract. And well, I just ain't got the money to pay for all this and too damn sick to work. That's how I got where I'm at. No pay, no health insurance."
Steven, like most of the homeless I come across, didn't reek of booze. He didn't have the stereotypical shopping cart full of bottles. He's just a man nearing sixty who fell on hard times and won't ask his brother for help. After listening to him, I had a pretty good feeling that his brother didn't even know he was living like this.
So I am doing the one thing I can do. I'm writing about it. I met a man named Steven today. He's homeless, one of the multitude. But he is alive and here in this moment, out there somewhere in this freezing city. I may never cross his path again, but I'm certainly better for having his presence in my life this afternoon.
It reminded me to be thankful for my life and grateful for the opportunity to help in any way I can.