Although it’s technically still winter, over the past few days the local weather has been pretty nice. Sunshine. Blue skies. Gentle breezes. All of the things that most folks think of when they think of California. Even the nights when the temperature has dropped it has still been nice. A sweater or a light jacket and you’re all set.
Today the weather was a bit warmer than yesterday. Good weather for sipping a nice cool drink. So, that’s what I did. I stopped at a 7-11 and bought a diet soft drink.
When I stepped out of the door I saw a gentleman walking. His clothing had definitely seen better days. Shoes – well, let’s just say that there probably wasn’t that much more mileage left to them. His jeans were slightly soiled on the front thighs. The jacket he was wearing was of the "ski jacket" type that you’d be able to find at one of the discount department stores. It too had seen better days, but it wasn’t torn. It was just well worn. On his back was a bulky backpack. He was obviously homeless.
Despite the worn appearance of his clothing however, I could see that he was clean shaven. His hair, also had a neat appearance. You could tell that he had gone through the trouble of trying to make himself as presentable as possible. Not an easy task when a person is homeless and has a limited wardrobe.
Coming in the opposite direction I noticed a mother pushing a stroller that had a child in it. At her side was a young boy of perhaps four or five years of age.
What caught my attention in particular about this young mother and her children is when she spotted the homeless gentleman. There was a slight "hiccup" in her pace. And, although it could have just been my imagination, it seemed to me that she looked like someone who was trying to figure out a way to escape from a potentially unpleasant situation.
I was in close enough proximity to hear her call her son by name and tell him to stay close to her.
I watched as the homeless gentleman stopped and stepped aside as far as his backpack and the building would allow so that the mother and her children would be able to pass with without trouble. I also noted that as the mother and her children were just about to pass him that he looked down. I don’t know if he was looking at his feet, the sidewalk or was just trying not to make this young woman any more uncomfortable than she seemed to be.
What really caught my attention is when the young boy looked at the homeless gentleman, waved and said in a clear voice: "Hello, Mister." The homeless gentleman’s response was so soft that I almost didn’t hear him when he said "Hi" in return.
The mother, in an accent, said thank you to the homeless gentleman, but didn’t look at him. She seemed eager to avoid looking directly at him. And, as this small family went its way, the little boy, still walking beside his mother turned, waved and said to the homeless gentleman: "Bye."
As the homeless gentleman resumed walking down the street I watched him for just a few moments before I went on my way.
For the next hour or so, my mind kept replaying the scene I had witnessed. And I wondered.
I wondered what this gentleman’s name was. Where he was from? How long had he been homeless? Did he have any family or was he alone in the world? What events and circumstances had occurred which had left him homeless?
And I also wondered about the young mother and her children.
When she had seen this homeless gentleman, there had been no look of recognition on her face, so obviously she didn’t personally know him. The only recognition that had registered with her was that this man was homeless. I don’t believe that she was actually afraid that the homeless gentleman was a possible threat to her and her family. Rather, it was as though she were just uncomfortable with the very notion that he was homeless.
I don’t know if she thought of herself better than the homeless gentleman. But it was apparent that she didn’t know how to deal with being within such close proximity to someone who was homeless. Perhaps she didn’t know whether she should acknowledge his presence. Perhaps she thought it was rude to look at him directly. Perhaps it was even a sense of guilt for not knowing what to do or how to help or even if she should help.
Even now, as I write these words, the one thing that does stand out in my mind is what the little boy did. He didn’t shy away from the homeless gentleman. He said hello to another person. He didn’t see the man as being homeless. He saw him as a man. A stranger perhaps, but a man nonetheless. And, he actually showed more common courtesy than his mother. I don’t have to wonder why. I know why.
At his age, this small boy hasn’t had his outlook on life polluted yet. He hasn’t developed a prejudice against homeless people. He isn’t old enough yet to buy into the numerous misconceptions about homelessness. He doesn’t know that the majority of people see homeless persons as a type of social disease: something to be avoid whenever possible.
I hope this young boy never becomes indoctrinated by prejudice. I hope that he never comes to see homeless people as undesirables like so many throughout my community.
Unfortunately, prejudice is something that we are taught. And usually, the ones who teach us these prejudices our those who are dearest to us: our parents. They, in turn, learned it from their parents. And it creates a vicious cycle of intolerance.
I think it would be really nice, if when we looked at others – homeless or not – we tried seeing them through the unblemished eyes of a child.
Maybe then we’d be able to see in other people what we so often fail to see when we look at them through the jaded eyes of adulthood: the humanity in each of us.