Lunchables & harmonicas: a lesson from the homeless in Evanston

"Craig Street Bum" by chrismaverick on Flickr

Yesterday afternoon, I approached my local CVS store to pick up a CTA pass. Just as I grabbed the door handle, I swung my head to the right to see a homeless man sitting on a crate outside the door. Before I could look away, he called after me – “Hey! Lady! Would you mind getting me something to eat?”

At first, I considered pretending I didn’t hear him – after all, I was in a hurry to get home as I was behind on some assignments – but, after about a half second of debate, my conscience got the best of me and I let the door swing shut as I turned to face him.

“Sure! What do you want?” I asked cheerily.

He looked slightly surprised that I took the time to answer him, and hesitated briefly before asking for some meat, cheese and crackers. I said I would be right back as I went inside, threw a turkey, cheese & cracker lunchable on the checkout counter, and headed back outside, smiling as I handed him the lunchable that contained everything he asked for – plus, a Capri Sun juice box as an added bonus.

“A lunchable?” he asked with chagrin. “This ain’t gonna fill me up!”

I stood, shell-shocked, as I took criticism from a homeless man about my edible donation to his cause.

“I mean, you can get an eight-pack of hot dogs and buns for less than this box of kids’ food,” JD said. “It ain’t gonna fill me up. Maybe I’ll trade with one of my buddies.”

I looked at him with disbelief, wondering how the heck he could be complaining when it was exactly what he asked for. If he wanted raw hot dogs instead of meat and cheese, he should have said so! But, point taken, I thought to myself – next time, a pack of raw hot dogs will go to the homeless man I talk to on the street.

“Well, thanks anyway,” he said as he put the lunchable in his backpack. “I appreciate your stoppin’ over and takin’ the time.”

He held out his hand, and I shook it as I asked for his name and how long he’d been in Evanston.

I then got JD’s life story: he was born and raised in Chicago. He dealt drugs, has been shot in the head twice, spent 23 years in jail and now is an “ex-con” who doesn’t have a drivers license. He has trouble finding employment though he has skills as a military veteran and ex-mechanic. His mother was a musician, he has a seven-year-old daughter, and claims three women are currently “after him,” though he admits he “needs to get his life together before anything happens there.” He sometimes showers in Lake Michigan, often sleeps in the alley between CVS and Bank of America in downtown Evanston, and carries a harmonica in his backpack, though not many people are aware of these facts.

“Nobody takes the time to listen out here, you know,” JD said. “People just look at me, even my own kind, they just look at me like I’m a disgrace. Nobody takes the time to hear my story.”

He then went on to talk a bit about theology.

“God never makes mistakes, you know,” JD said. “People screw life up. People got problems. Drugs, not loving each other – people got problems in their own homes. People don’t love their wives, people don’t love their children. This ain’t the way people are supposed to be – it ain’t the way God created us to be.”

He went on to talk about how cool it would be to live for 900 years, like Moses did in the Bible.

“Humanity musta done somethin’ wrong – our blood’s all diluted now,” JD said. “People used to be able to survive in 100 degree weather, 100 degree below zero weather – what are we doin’?”

He also talked a bit about how ignorant most of culture is: How he wonders how people can claim to love God, then turn around and kill each other, like they do in gangs downtown all the time.

I contemplated, smiled and nodded a lot during that conversation, but mostly just let him talk. Turns out the man I thought I would end up witnessing to witnessed to me in ways I never imagined possible – all it took was investing $3.39 in a lunchable and 20-minute sacrifice of homework time for a meaningful conversation.

As I shook his hand before I turned to leave, asked how I could pray for him: for a job? For his family?

“I could always use prayer, you know, but I’m happy, God’s blessed me, I got a pretty good life,” JD said. “I could be dead by now – Lord knows he coulda taken me by now – but I’m still here. There’s people that do a bunch of stuff and waste their time. I don’t got no time for that. I’m gonna get it together. I’m on the way.”

I then patted him on the shoulder, commended him on his faith, and promised I would bring my harmonica out there at some point soon so we could “jam.” The best part of the afternoon happened as I walked away – as three college-aged students take my place by JD, I smiled. They continued the conversation as I thought to myself: “Move over, Haley Joel Osment – I just paid it forward in real life!”

I dare you to do the same – it might just change your life! 🙂

“And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” -Luke 3:11-

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