Once a week I have three hours to kill in East Austin. I kill them at Denny’s, because it’s close to where I need to pick up R when she’s done, and because they play 60s and 70s rock–my music. I usually take my laptop and sit at one of the two tables near an outlet, so I can write.
This last time I was busy writing, really getting into it between dinner and dessert, when I heard, “Hey! No! Out! Right now! Go on, out!” I looked up, still half in my other world, and saw the evening’s manager shoo out a homeless man, and then taking two empty plates to the kitchen. When he came back out I walked up to the counter and asked if he just threw that gentleman out because he was homeless.
“No, I threw him out because he was eating the leftovers from other people’s plates. He comes in, uses our restroom and takes food. I gave him a cup of coffee earlier, but he’s been warned about taking scraps.”
So I asked if he couldn’t tell the man that he’ll put together a plate of leftovers for him. “No, I wish I could, but we’re not allowed to do that. If he gets sick and says that it’s from eating our leftovers, we’ll get sued.”
I’m not sure I believe that he he wished he could, because he reacted to that homeless man in exactly the same way I do when I catch my dog licking the plates. Either way, damn lawsuits! By then the homeless man was long gone, so I mumbled that I understood, but that it was too bad, and I sat back down, not able to get back into my writing for a while.
Imagine being so hungry that you’d sneak in and eat leftovers off a stranger’s plate, at the risk of being humiliated the way he was, in front of a full diner. I couldn’t get that out of my mind. I also felt that my response was rather weak.
Anyway, eventually I got back to typing, and some twenty minutes later a woman, about my age or a little older, stopped by my table on her way out and asked me if I had complained about the way that homeless man was treated. I replied that I wanted to know what was going on, because it seemed overly harsh. I braced myself because I thought she was going to chide me for defending a no-good hobo, but instead she said she agreed, and good for me that I confronted the manager. I didn’t feel that I exactly confronted the manager, because it was all very sudden, but I said that any one of us could be homeless.
Then she told me that she had been, a long time ago, with five children, one still in diapers. She indicated a tall young man in his early twenties, who was paying the bill at the counter. And she said they had their leftovers boxed up on the off chance that they saw the homeless man somewhere outside. “God watches out for us,” she said. I replied that I didn’t know about that, but that people should watch out for one another, and she agreed. Common ground.
I thanked her for boxing her leftovers and told her I was glad she wasn’t homeless anymore, and she thanked me for standing up to the manager, “because maybe he had to, but he could have handled it differently”. Yes, that’s what I should have said to him! I’ll do better next time. And next time I’ll also be faster and tell the homeless man–or woman or teenager–to sit down and order a meal on me.
I’m writing this because I know that there are plenty of people who would stand up for someone in a similar situation, if only they weren’t taken by surprise. I was, and talking with that woman, I learned what I should have said. So I’ll be ready the next time this situation happens. And now you will you be, too.
Meanwhile, remember to always have your leftovers boxed if there’s a chance you’ll see a homeless person on your way back home, and if it’s cold where you are, sleeping bags, tarps, duct tape, etc. are always welcome gifts.
It’s why humans can’t solve our most pressing problems and it’s why Donald Trump was elected POTUS. In the human condition Ego trumps Empathy and I fear it always will.