Today, I was at Walgreens near my apartment, when I walked by a homeless guy. He was the saddest homeless guy I'd seen in a while, and there are a lot of homeless people here in Sweat Sock City, especially in downtown where I walk by them -- without looking or acknowledging -- on a regular basis. But to see one here at Walgreens was a surprise, because I live in an extremely affluent area that's closely patroled. I picked up a few items and made my way to the battery section which is right near the cash register. The homeless guy was standing there, fiddling at the refrigerator that held all the Red Bulls. A well-dressed guy, maybe around my age, asked the homeless guy, "Are you in line, sir?" The 'sir' struck me instantly, but then the batteries caught my eye again -- alkaline or lithium? -- and I forgot about both the well-dressed guy and the homeless guy until I turned around and saw the homeless guy standing there, drinking his Red Bull.
"Are you in line?" I asked, and I didn't add the 'sir', but then it's rare I call anyone 'sir', except for maybe upper management. The homeless guy shook his head. He was dressed in worn, faded clothing that probably hadn't been washed in months, if not years. He was old, maybe in his late 60s or early 70s. His glasses were battered, and one lense was covered with duct tape. He wore some kind of cape over all of his clothes. He was mumbling, was clearly not all together. I think his hair was grey-white, but I'm not entirely sure. I'm ashamed to say I didn't look at him too closely.
The well-dressed guy was in front of me at the register and he was asking the cashier for some cigarettes. I remember thinking, "How disgusting. Such a cute guy, obviously professional, and ugh, cigarettes." And then he was fiddling with the Snickers bars display -- 2 for $1 -- on the counter. The cashier asked if he wanted them, and he said yes. When she moved to put them in his bag, he shook his head and pointed his finger at the homeless guy. He swiped his credit card, took his cigarettes and left.
When I got to the cash register, I stared at the two Snickers bars. The cashier was ringing up my stuff -- boring stuff like toilet paper, contact lense solution, batteries, shampoo -- but each item cost more than the Red Bull the homeless guy was drinking. I remembered then an incident a few months back when a co-worker and I were out to lunch. We'd gone to Papa John's and bought personal sized pizzas -- about $5 each. A homeless guy had somehow made his way down into the tunnels and he asked us if we could buy him lunch. We ignored him and went and sat down. I felt awful later on, because really, what was $2.50 each to us? And he wasn't asking us for anything more than a pizza and if we bought him lunch, we would know he wasn't spending the money on drugs or alcohol. And yet, we said no. To his face.
I looked back at the homeless guy and he was clutching a wad of bills in his fist. He was clearly going to pay for the Red Bull. I looked back at the Snickers bars and then told the cashier I would pay for the homeless guy's Red Bull. Maybe he could use the $2 for something more substantial to eat, I thought, but really, I was thinking about the guy who had asked me to buy him lunch and I had said no. Guilt can be an awfully powerful motivator.
Kate Walsh, the actress, once said in an interview that there's a difference between being kind and being nice, and the difference is compassion. Anyone can be nice, Kate Walsh said, but not everyone can be kind. The guy standing in front of me in line was a true example of being kind. His actions were quiet, deliberate, and he wasn't doing anything more than recognizing that someone else had a need that he could fulfil. And more than that, he showed respect, and that's something money just can't buy.