I stood on the stair of the bus. The others had walked past him, ignored him. They never allowed his presence to register in their minds.
He and I had history. Those chance repeated passings through the years—me on the way to the business world, him in his daily struggle for survival. He would ask for money, but the most I was willing to give was a nod, a hello. Never what he wanted, never what I thought he wanted.
For five years I stepped off the bus and walked the few blocks to my office. The streets were filled with people taking their last steps outside before business took over their day. Within the cracks, among those of us with purpose, walked the street people.
At first it was easy to ignore them, pretend they weren’t there, weren’t passing me as I walked. They were shadow people, not assigned faces, emotions, lives. I tried to pretend it was not necessary for me to see them.
Over the months, though, they took form, individual form. Faces told me stories, told me their inner tales.
I began to read their lives. I could spot the novice, the one trying to face the fear that the initial days on the streets bring. I saw the grief of separation, the guilt the bottle held. Their heads would quickly drop in shame when their eyes met mine.
I was once you, they would whisper to me.
Over the years, he was one of the first I saw stepping off the bus. I saw his beard grow longer, the hair start to thin. Still I held to my standards, that loose change would only feed the desperation, not heal his soul.
It was easy for me then to write the checks which went behind the walls of the churches or the agencies. The checks I believed were enough to fill my heart with purpose.
It was the storm that changed me. The storm I was safe from, with my raincoat and umbrella. Those small possessions that separated me from the elements.
The rain hurried me along my route. Reaching the bus, I grabbed the handle along the door. I looked to the side and caught his resigned eyes. His beard dripped with rain, it dropped into the open collar around his neck. His hair was flat along the side of his face. Where was his hat? But he was far beyond the concern for a hat, far beyond even the rain.
I thrust my umbrella at him, adding “It might help,” Willing his hand to take it.
“Lady,” he scoffed, “if you really want to help, do something to make a difference.” He turned away, hands jammed into his pockets, head bowed. He moved from me, deeper into the rain.
I don’t remember my next steps or my body moving through the aisle of the bus. For in that moment, his reality became so very apparent. I knew my kind nods, my checks written from the safety of my home, were no longer enough.
The next day I stood on the street outside the agency. I stood in debate, in uncertainty of what I could do.
Raindrops started to fall, my hand reached in my bag. I opened and moved my umbrella to cover me. I thought of the comfort of my world inside the umbrella. I looked back to the weather-worn door and pressed the bell. A voice floated over the intercom.
“Can I help you?” it inquired.
“No,” I told the voice from within the wall. “I’m here to help.”
Diana Creel Elarde is a writer and a business consultant. She recently published her first book, A Star in My Hand. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.