I once sat in the parking lot of a convenience store and watched a homeless man rifle through his plastic bag. It was a cold day – bitterly cold – and the sharp wind carried a sting. The man was bundled in a raggedy coat, and his hands were chapped and red.
The man had a dog with him, a nice-looking black and white dog. It was clean, well kept, well fed and looked devoted to the man. The man looked devoted to the dog, too, reaching out to pet its head, talking a little bit to it, fussing over it to make sure the dog was well tied.
That dog struck me. Here was a homeless man, obviously lacking and badly wanting – yet his dog wasn’t suffering at all.
What did the homeless man give up to make sure his dog stayed well fed and healthy?
I went inside the store, feeling guilty over the pack of smokes and chocolate bar I was planning to buy. I had an extra twenty in my pocket, and I rubbed it with my fingers. The money almost felt dirty.
I wanted to give the homeless man that twenty. I had the crazy idea that I could just walk up to him and say, “Can I offer you this?” Maybe I should buy him coffee instead, or something… I don’t know, useful. Or maybe I should just give him the money and let him decide what he should buy with it.
Then my imagination woke up. I could picture myself holding out the twenty, only to have the man yell at me. “Keep your money,” he’d growl. Of course he’d growl. Why wouldn’t he? I bet the man was bitter and resentful of the people who had warm homes and food whenever they wanted it. If I was homeless, I’d probably be bitter and angry, too.
But that dog… That man gave up food for his dog. He probably let the dog get the best pickings, or he split his findings of thrown-out garbage evenly down the middle to share. That dog was his friend, his constant companion. That dog was all the man had.
As I paid for my luxuries, the homeless man came into the store. The glance he gave the girl behind the counter was full of fear – he knew he wasn’t welcome. He fully expected to be yelled at or thrown out.
But he hunched his shoulders to hide from the stares, and he started picking through the garbage cans.
God, I felt guilty.
I bought my smokes and chocolate and left the store, the twenty in my hand burning my fingers. I wanted to give that man the money so badly, and I was so scared of his reaction that I couldn’t do it. I stood by my car for over ten minutes, both hopeful and terrified that the perfect opportunity to offer the money would arise.
The dog watched me the whole time I stood there struggling with my conscience. Calm, curious… The dog watched me until I got into my car and drove away, my heart getting heavier as the distance between us increased, my head whispering at me that I’d made a mistake.
That was this fall. Now, the deadly bite of winter is the air. The temperatures are well below freezing. The snow is thigh deep as far as the eye can see.
I think of the homeless man and his dog often. Are they safe? Do they have food? Where do they sleep at night? Do the man’s fingers hurt from the cold? Mine do each time I step outside to stand on the porch. It’s bitterly cold without proper clothing. I can feel the crystals of frost form in my throat with each breath I take.
So this holiday season, forgive me for sending my best wishes to one man and his dog.
May your Christmas be merry, my friend.
And may you have warmth, food and companionship for the days and nights to come.