I remember his nails, tough and long with a yellow opaqueness. His hands that held the green lid open were dirty and grime filled between all the creases. It looked like it could’ve been a map of all the gutters he had slept in. A little boy and his mother walked past him. Was he invisible to the mother? Apparently not by the smell of him. Little boy’s eyes darted quickly toward him as he was yanked away by mother. His innocent curiosity was only matched by mine as I continued my stride. But was it curiosity or fear, since it was not invisibility? What is worse of the three?
The bright green lid was metal and gunk ridden. His wardrobe was more like an unending piece of cloth that wrapped his body and covered him like a secret. Miscellaneous zippers and buttons stitched all along his outfit of ostracism. All those layers in this California summer heat. To society it shouted don’t come near me. But he wasn’t stupid, he knew. His eyes scanned the scene, expecting judgement and expecting to brush it right off. His pride was a floor that drew unending filth. All I could imagine was the calloused strength it must take to not care, to always brush it off. He knew he was something that wasn’t meant to be seen– almost like his wardrobe was society’s judgement. You are ugly, unwanted, and hungry.
My heart was crushed and my stomach was turned at the site of him scooping wet food remnants from a nasty trash can in the middle of downtown Walnut Creek. My stride turned into a jog as I found myself reacting to his desperation– his survival, that was his reality. I spoke to him, “Excuse me sir, are you hungry? Because you don’t have to eat that.” His eyes were that of a wild animal. One of his hands was palm up, fingers arched back with yellow nails out in defense while he struggled to hold the lid with the other, not forgetting about his sloppy trash meal. His mumbled words said what sounded like a yeah sure, or fuck you, or do you want some– I wasn’t sure because the tinged beard that covered his entire face only showed two flaps of meat that were his lips as he mumbled. Even those were dirty. I told him he could eat anywhere he wanted, to pick a place, I’d pay. As he realized I wasn’t a threat…my words sunk in, and I wondered when was the last time he had that option? “You can pick anywhere on this street that you’d like to eat,” I repeated.
He scanned the options, sandwich shops, Mexican food, frozen yogurt, BBQ, etc. He couldn’t decide. He was a child again. In a toy store on Christmas day with a blank check. My patience began to wear thin as the heat baked into my neck and I felt sweat soaking through my shirt’s underarms. “Really, Gabe?” I heard my conscience say. So I walked him to a Chipotle where he wouldn’t step inside. “Come in,” I said, “It’s ok. I’ll pay…you can come in.”
As we walked in we received stares. I expected that but I knew it wouldn’t matter. Who were they to judge? I can’t lie, I wasn’t embarrassed until we got to the front counter. His interaction with the workers and his long stares at the food all across the line was ravenous. His nails dragged across the glass protector. He leaned over it pointing his opaque nails at each item, “That and that…that too.” People ignored him still, but not his stench and I sort of smiled at their punishment for his happiness. Those in line looked the other way while the workers were in shock wondering why he was inside. But they did their diligence and prepped his meal. I wondered if they hated me or admired me. “Who cares,” rather than, “Who cares?” was my mindset. I doubted anyone in this bougie city could imagine this man’s happiness/gratefulness just to step into a Chipotle. I’m sure he was grateful. He said thanks and I said take care. I wondered if he thought “Who cares,” as opposed to “Who cares?”