Fellow Travelers
By Don Staehli

Walking out of the store with twenty dollars in my pocket was not unusual, because I have a hard time finding anything I want that I can actually afford. It’s easy to covet the expensive stuff that lies beyond the budget, but it’s best to just keep walking when the temptation to purchase begins to mount beyond a reasonable person’s ability to resist.

Some believe maturity increases the danger of over-spending. So says the adage that the older the boys, the more expensive the toys. A plethora of credit cards has heightened the risk. On this cold morning I just kept walking.

Outside the entrance to the mall was a man who was quite literally on the street. He sat on the sidewalk with one leg tucked under him like a sort of pillow appendage. The other leg, well, there was no other leg, just a stump with a pinned-up pant. On his lap was a “will work for food” sign. What a tragic clich.

People passed him by without a glance.  He occupied very little room in their awareness. It’s easy to ignore something (or someone) that quietly takes up only a small spot on the sidewalk and carefully avoids any personal contact. With his head down and his eyes lowered, all bundled  in a well-worn parka and curled up on the ground, he was easy to discount and evoked little response from the more vigorous humans who quickly went about their business.

For some reason he did catch my attention. Maybe it was the contrast between the motionless lump he was and the swarm of pedestrians on the busy walk. Perhaps it was his dishevelment versus the well-kempt crowd. It might have been an unconscious comparison on my part of the deep chasm between those who have so much and those who have and seem to be so little.

I couldn’t resist the desire to offer a bit of what I had saved by not buying something I didn’t need anyway. Without any real contact I dropped a ten dollar bill into his cup and turned to move on, not wanting to draw attention to myself from him or anyone else. Before I could make my escape, however, his head came up and his eyes met mine. He smiled. His eyes were blue. He looked rather pleasant and said, “Thank you. Have a nice weekend!”

Wait a minute! That was an all too normal thing to say. How can we pass you by and ignore your humanity if you offer such a real-life response? What are we supposed to do if we recognize there is a personality behind the stubble on that chin? Are you somebody’s husband? It is even thinkable that a child could call you dad or grandpa? I guess it is! You seem like a nice enough person. Except for your circumstances, you may well be a lot like those who walk past you.

“You, too,” I said with a smile. And pictured him at home and hoped he would have a good weekend. I moved on with a renewed sense that all of us who live on this planet have more in common than our hurried pace allows us to realize or our self-centered rush to achieve permits us to accept. He was welcome to half of my twenty.

Down the street was another mendicant. He, too, attracted my attention, but unlike the first man, he was getting looks from nearly everyone. It was tough to ignore his tattered clothes, wild hair, and loud, scratchy violin playing. He stood by the crosswalk sawing away at an unrecognizable melody, his violin case at his feet in a silent request for whatever monetary offering might be made. But his screeching performance didn’t seem to be working. All he was getting was a bit of attention. Not much money.

Oh well, the other ten in my pocket would probably do him some good. This time, however, I decided to be more interested in the person.

“Yes,” he replied, with eyes cast down.

Not satisfied, I inquired, “Where are you from?”

Now he raised his head. His eyes were blue, also. With an interesting softness in his voice he responded, “I’m from heaven.”

Taken aback, I said without thinking, “So am I! It’s nice to have you here!” My answer seemed somehow to ring true.

The begging musician may not have reached the conclusion about his origins in a particularly rational way. His concept of heaven may have been much different from mine. That didn’t seem to matter in the brief moment in which we connected as two human beings working our way through life. Different paths to be sure, but at that moment I chose not to judge or compare his way with my own. It was enough to look into his eyes, connect with a fellow traveler, share a bit of what I had to offer and then leave him to carry on as best he could.

We owe more to those around us, much more than a few dollars. We owe them the recognition that they are worthwhile and have meaning, regardless of their situation. We owe them a friendly word and, when necessary and right, even some financial help. They live in the same world, the same country, the same city we do. Their lot in life might easily be ours except for a few changes in hard-to-predict outcomes of common choices. 

I arrived back at the office without any money, but the insight I bought by offering a couple of tens to some men on the street was well worth it.

Each of us deserves to be counted in the mix that is humanity.


2006 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.