I contemplated about whether to write about this, but decided to in spite of my trepidation. My hesitation is because I want to avoid this coming across as a “look at how open-minded/tolerant/fill-in-the-blank I am” story. That’s not what this is about. It’s a reflection on how we interact with the people around us on any given day, and what we gain from those encounters.
This evening after I had finished hanging out at a coffee shop getting some stuff done, I decided to stop by one of my favorite restaurants for takeout. (I’m traveling at the moment, so I find myself dining out more frequently than normal.)
As I was walking back to my car, a man asked me if he could have my leftovers. It’s pretty common around here for people to give their leftovers away, so this didn’t catch me off-guard. I explained to him, though, that I hadn’t actually eaten any of it yet, and that my vegan meal might not be particularly appealing to him.
Then I asked him if I could buy him dinner. He looked at me with surprise and said that I didn’t have to do that. I told him that I would be glad to if he wanted something to eat, but that if he just needed some money, I could do that instead–and that I didn’t want him to feel like I didn’t trust him to make his own decisions about what to do with whatever I gave him. He took me up on the dinner offer, and after asking his friend/traveling companion to watch his stuff, we walked a couple of blocks to another restaurant.
We looked at the menu, and I asked him if any of it looked good. He responded that it had been so long since he’d been to a nice sit-down restaurant that he couldn’t really process the number of menu selections. I pointed out a few popular options, and he settled on a burger and fries. Not a low-quality fast food burger, but real, actual meat.
When we walked in to the restaurant and up to the bar, he was surprised that no one told him that he had to leave. He wasn’t used to being accepted in such an environment. I asked him if he felt uncomfortable, and he said that he was fine.
It took about 20 minutes for the order to be prepared (in the middle of happy hour), and we visited at the bar while we waited. He told me about all the states he has visited (he travels by train), and I found myself fascinated by his adventures. No one gave him a hard time, and I didn’t even notice if anyone stared at us.
Then when the food was ready, I asked the bartender if we could have some ketchup for the fries. The bartender came back with a full bottle of ketchup and told us that he’d like for us to have it. I’m not quite sure whether this man really wants to carry around a bottle of ketchup everywhere he goes, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. And I’m sure it will be passed along to someone who will use it.
We hugged, wished each other well on our journeys, and parted ways. As I continued on my walk to my car, I thought about how our encounter is such a rare occurrence. Even for me, this seemed different. I’m usually in a hurry when I’m approached by someone who asks for money or food, and while I might spend a few minutes visiting, part of my brain is still caught up in my own little world. This evening I wasn’t on my way to an appointment or event, and it was nice to have a lengthier, more meaningful conversation.
Back to my lead-in to this blog post, I don’t want to make this story all about me, and yet in a way it *is* about me…and all of us. The man I met today isn’t a prop or accessory. So many times, those in poverty are used and exploited for having homeless people wear a brand
others’ personal gain (the “shame Abercrombie & Fitch by having homeless people wear the brand” stunt comes to mind). I want to be mindful about that sort of thing and not do something that unintentionally harms others.
What I’m left pondering is how this man reminded me of something that I can forget in the hustle and bustle of my daily life: all of our face-to-face interactions matter. Every single one. A few minutes of chatting is better than nothing, but those times when we’re able to delve more deeply into dialogue can give us so much more.
I also realized that, no matter how much I’m committed to challenging social norms, I still can find myself not really paying attention. Of course this man is accustomed to restaurants not wanting him to come inside. I’ve seen people be turned away from business establishments based on their presentation, but I also assumed that the restaurant would receive us because I’ve never personally been rejected in that sort of way.
This reminded me that I often take for granted that I’m welcome or, at the very least, acceptable. My assumption extends to those who are with me, and I might have been a bit oblivious when we walked in. Well, I figured we’d get a few disapproving looks, but I didn’t have an expectation that we’d be kicked out.
I think the challenge for all of us is to slow down when we’re able and really engage with people outside of our typical social circles. It’s through these conversations that we learn about ourselves, those around us, and the larger world. And then when we insert ourselves into spaces where we (or those we are with) don’t “belong,” we might actually encourage others to do something similar in the future.
Perhaps we could all benefit from being in environments where we’re not entirely comfortable. I’m not sure if anyone in the restaurant was indeed uncomfortable, but if so, they managed to survive just fine. If you’re ever in a public space where you have the time to slow down and connect with people who are “different” from you, I hope you’ll do so. After all, we’re not really all that different…