t was a cold, windy December night in downtown Baltimore. The twinkling Christmas lights of the buildings around the Inner Harbor danced on the pitch-black water. My boyfriend (now husband), Brandon, and I were going on a date that night. We walked around, admiring the city that we both loved so much, gazing at the sparkling decorations and trying to find a place to eat a quiet dinner. I had been looking forward to my date with Brandon all week. We were long distance, so I liked to cherish every second we got to spend together in the same place. “This night is going to be perfect,” I thought as I smiled at him. We walked slowly around the water's’ edge, casually discussing where to eat dinner when…
...a figure tapped Brandon on the shoulder.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It was shadowy. It was tall. And it was a stranger. Panic struck me as I waited for Brandon to make the first move. Growing up in a notoriously dangerous city, I’ve always watched my back and been wary of strangers. But Brandon was not. He turned around and looked at the tall, mysterious figure.
It was a man. He had red hair, grime on his face and was wearing several layers of mismatched clothes. He had dirt underneath his fingernails and sadness in his eyes. We just looked at each other, holding our breath. Finally the stranger broke the silence.
“Hello. I’m so sorry to bother you guys. I don’t even want to do this, but I was wondering if you could help me get some food to eat tonight. I’m homeless and I haven’t eaten in a few days. I really hate asking people for help…” he trailed off in a gentle voice, as he avoided eye contact.
Without a second thought, Brandon boldly looked at the man and said, “Sure. What do you want to eat?” The man began to hurriedly explain that there was cheap pizza at the 7-11 down the street that was only a few bucks. Brandon quickly stopped him.
“Yeah, but what do you WANT to eat tonight?” he asked. The man stared at us. He looked dumbfounded. He was speechless for a few moments. Then finally, he quietly replied that there was a Chipotle nearby and it was his favorite place to eat. And so we began to walk.
We must have looked so odd to people around us. Brandon and I were on our way to a date. We had nice, clean clothes on. We were dressed fancy. And then right beside us was an unusually tall, ragged homeless man that seemed to be tagging along on our night out on the town.
rowing up in the city, my parents had always told me to be careful of homeless people. My parents weren’t mean people, but they didn’t want me to be tricked into giving away money to people who might not be honest. It had been drilled into my head that you simply ignore homeless people because you can’t trust them. As we walked, I felt increasingly uncomfortable yet curious. I figured I might at least know his name.
“So what’s your name?” I tried to ask casually. He looked at me, with surprise and excitement. It must have been a while since someone last asked him his name. “My name is Dave,” he replied.
Dave. He had a name.
We walked into the Chipotle and I thought, This is not exactly what I had in mind for a ‘nice dinner’. We were greeted by ungracious stares of the employees. They looked at Brandon and I, and they must have wondered what in the world we were doing with this homeless man. Brandon told Dave to get whatever he wanted to eat. He looked hesitantly at us before ordering. Afterwards, he leaned over to me and said, “This place is a homeless man’s dream. You can get as much rice and beans in your burrito as you want!” I could hear the thrill in his voice indicating that it had been a while since he had last eaten.
We ordered and sat down, and Dave asked if he could pray for our food. Brandon and I agreed. He thanked God for our food, and that he had something to eat tonight and for his new friends.
But the thing was that he hadn’t eaten in days, he didn’t know where he was sleeping that night, and his only friends were two strangers that he had just met. But still, here he was, thanking God.
We began to chat with him. How do you make small talk with a homeless man? After a few minutes of small talk, I finally blurted out, “I’m sorry if this is too personal, but I am only asking this out of curiosity. Do you mind telling me about yourself?” I didn’t know why I said it. Was that rude? Was it too blunt? I wish I hadn't said it. But I said it and I couldn’t take it back. Dave smiled at me and began his story.
A few years back, he had walked in on his sister being raped. He had shot the man who was raping her and was arrested. He was given eight years in jail. He was released after five. Once he was out in the real world, he couldn’t find work because of his record. He also has a two-year-old son that he hasn’t seen in years and his wife found a new husband while he was in jail. He was just trying to make it each day and was applying for as many jobs as he could, but most nights he sleeps on the benches in Fells Point.
Some people who are homeless may lie. But I believed Dave.
I didn’t realize I was signing up for all that. I had been hesitant to talk to him- let alone have dinner with him. But after that, Dave wasn’t a homeless person to me. He had a name, a son, a past, a sister and a wife. He’s been hurt and sad, and now he’s just trying to get back on his feet. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in a Chipotle with my boyfriend and a homeless stranger – tears in my eyes.
We chatted some more and the time came to part ways. Dave never asked us for money but we gave him some cash so he could find a shelter to stay in for the night. He thanked us and didn’t want to shake Brandon’s hand because he said his hands were too dirty. But Brandon insisted. Dave went to shake my hand. But I just went in for a hug. I don’t know what came over me but his story had moved me in a way that nothing else had before and I was grateful to have met him.
I never expected to see Dave again. He would return to his world and I mine, and we would go about life with our respective struggles. But two months later, Brandon and I ran into Dave on the streets in Fells Point. The joy in his eyes when we called out his name because we remembered him is a sight I will never forget. We got dinner with him that night. And over the two years, we’ve had dinner with him four times since then. Last time we met, Dave had recently received a job as a bus boy at a restaurant in the Inner Harbor. I almost cried when he told me. He was my friend and he was getting his life back.
Something changed in the way I saw my city that night. Whenever I see homeless people on the street, my heart wants to reach out and hug them. They have names and families and sadness and smiles. And they have a story to tell. And they have beautiful futures, just like Dave.