The other day, I was walking — bounding, really — to buy bagels. A vegan Jewish deli just opened not far from my place. With visions of rugelach dancing in my head, I was in my own world.
And then I saw an older gentleman in a doorway, sitting in a wheelchair. He wasn’t asking for anything or talking to anyone. I gave him a smile and a nod. He smiled back, a huge smile.
As I stood in line at the deli, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. It was late December in Oregon and bitterly cold. So, in addition to my bagels and other treats, I got the biggest thing of matzo ball soup they could give me.
I’m not saying this to congratulate myself. I’m saying it because it was the literal least I could do and, in doing this extremely minor thing, I was treated to something a million times better — a full hour of stories from a man whose name I now know is John.
I walked back to his spot and asked if he’d like some hot soup and he said, “Yes, absolutely.” When I told him that it was matzo, his eyes became huge.
“I used to have matzo ball soup all the time when I lived in San Diego! I haven’t had it in so long!”
We shared our mutual love of Jewish cuisine, despite his being raised Catholic and my being raised not much of anything. We talked about track and field, about college courses in math and chemistry, about his work in a photography studio. And by “we,” I mean “he.” He had so much to say.
When I finally had to walk home, I thanked him for telling me about his life and asked if he wanted to borrow my phone to call 2-1-1 or another service and he declined. I didn’t push or pry, but I did feel helpless.
And then he broke my heart.
“Thanks for listening to an old man,” he said. “It’s been a long time since someone listened.”
If there is one thing I have learned from Real Change vendors and folks living outside, it’s that the cold and the pain is awful — but the isolation is worse. Becoming less than human in the eyes of your neighbors is worse. Living unhoused is a death by a thousand cuts — and at least half of those are just snubs from people pretending not to see you.
Read more of the Jan. 5-11, 2022 issue.