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“You gonna eat that?” he asked, quietly, gently.

That was the first time I had seen Bill. Sure, I’ve walked down this street a thousand times before on my way to work—people bustling about, hurrying to their destination. I’ve seen people like him out and about: tired, dirty, lonesome, and maybe even lost. Everyone scurrying and wondering what the day will bring.

Hell, maybe I’ve looked at this exact same man before. But this is the first time I had really seen and taken notice of Bill: long, unkempt hair; scraggly beard; and old clothes featuring work boots, blue jeans, and a Champion sweatshirt filled with holes.

Over time I would come to know him, respect him, and appreciate him.

When you were little, your parents—if they were like mine—may have taught you not to look at the homeless, not to stare at them, and to generally avoid them.

But Bill wasn’t what we have been taught a stereotypical homeless man was. He had a kind glare, striking blue eyes, and when you spoke to him you knew that he was, at the very least, your intellectual peer. If you took the time, you could talk to the man about sports, music, history, cars… you name it. Getting to know him was an education in and of itself, one much more thorough and meaningful than my Bachelor’s.

Bill taught me to judge less quickly. Much less quickly.

There’s a stigma for the homeless: lazy, stupid, addicts. Pick whichever one you want, but you know them; you’ve heard them. They’re stereotypes, and they’re often wrong. Maybe it’s everyone else that’s lazy and stupid. Maybe we’re the ones addicted to this viewpoint, and we’ve never taken a second to see them as people. As equals.

Bill is a proud man—his father was an Irish immigrant, mother was second generation Italian. He grew up here, was from the neighborhood, worked hard his whole life. Had a nice little apartment on the west side of town and a Ford F-150 that he kept spit-shine clean and running like a whistle.

He was a simple man without many wants, but he was comfortable. Until the accident.

He wrecked his back at work, needed surgery to fuse some vertebrae together, and he was never the same again. Unable to lift moderately heavy objects, unable to stand on his feet for hours at a time. Work was now too grueling and he would not be able to continue at the assembly plant.

He thought he could adjust to a new life, still find a way to make it in this world, but this work was all he had known and this life did not come with a backup plan. Money became a significant worry. At first, it was a missed credit card payment; then it was the electric bill; and finally the rent.

It was never supposed to be like this. This didn’t happen to people like Bill.

And yet, here we are. Bill would weather the seasons as they changed, from unbearably hot to dangerously cold. He learned quickly about some harsh realities of his new world.

What can you buy at the grocery store when you don’t have a fridge or freezer to store anything? How do you get a job when you can’t get yourself looking or feeling sharp for an interview? How do you even live when every little thing is so damn difficult? Providing and existing on the bare minimum was hard enough; he would have to rely on the kindness of strangers for some of life’s most banal luxuries. A hot meal, a new pair of socks—these are things, the so-called luxuries, that Bill could no longer afford. At this point, a normal, friendly conversation that was not riddled with judgment or pity felt like the most luxurious desire of all.

I’ve walked past Bill a thousand times before.

Usually carrying my briefcase and my lunch sack, on the way to work along with hundreds of other people doing the exact same thing, at the same time, day after day. Undoubtedly, I’ve brushed shoulders with Bill before, his worn sweatshirt meeting my laundered and pressed wool suit. Today I was fishing through my lunch and found inside a tuna sandwich, not what I was hoping for. Bill was beside me on the sidewalk, noticed the forlorn look on my face, and quietly, gently, asked me, “You gonna eat that?”

Chris Nahlik

Chris is a DC based sports fan and human being that never fancied himself as a writer, but goes wherever the world takes him.

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