He sat in the circle of twelve, he made thirteen. As he studied the floor, we chatted uneasily around him. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, as men often do, and turned a coin over and over again in a rhythmic, practiced move.
His dark. weathered face and stooped, curved shoulders spoke of his age and his storied past. He just looked like a man with stories to tell. He was neat and clean in his J. C. Penny, by way of the thrift store, clothing. We sat, uniformly clad in our fashionable finery.
Although sitting in the circle, he was very much alone. The pale faces surrounding him reflected the unspoken chasm, that great divide between the haves and the have nots. We had. He had not.
He was there to tell us his story, or at least offer a glimpse into his life on the Mean Streets of Atlanta. They were his streets, and he knew them well. They were his home and his neighbors lived there, faceless to our neighbors, on our streets.
Who lives on the streets we wanted to know? People, he said. People just like you. Excuse me, we said! People like us? Yes. People. Husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, you know…people.
We wanted to know how they got there. Well, sometimes you’re on your own with no backup. Sometimes you make bad choices in your life and there you are. But, sometimes, no matter what you do, or how hard you try, you just can’t make it…and the street is where you land.
Okay, it happens, we thought. We wanted to know what it felt like to be homeless. Someone asked him what was the hardest thing about living on the streets. We waited for an answer. And we waited. Surely he would say how difficult it was to get food, or how cold the nights were, or how frightening it was to be so vulnerable. We waited as he studied the coin in his hands.
He pondered the question without looking up. Slowly he raised his eyes, looking at each of us in turn. That’s when he said, “won’t nobody look you in the eye.” That’s when the cold water splashed me right in the face. His answer was unexpected. I was stunned. He thought the worst thing about being homeless was being invisible…being unseen…unacknowledged! Being a nobody to you and me was what hurt him the most. Being outside the circle that we call humanity. He had dignity and wanted respect. Like other people. People like you and me.
He said most on the street don’t want a handout. “It don’t cost nothing to give us what we really want…a nod or a smile will do.”
He was wrong about the cost. It might cost me everything. I might have to get involved, to see the homeless as, well…people. Not homeless people. Just people. Like you and me people. I might have to care. I might have to open my heart…and my circle.
As tears slipped down my face, I looked around at our circle. I saw not the dozen people, plus one, that I had seen in the beginning, but now the perfect Baker’s dozen, that one extra, unexpected treat…a prize…a gift…a treasure that brings added value.
I saw the man in our circle. Thirteen people. My circle runneth over.