Thanksgiving is a time of giving thanks, pumpkin spice lattes, and random acts of kindness in my book. I didn't throw turkeys or stuffing into that list because I haven't had a turkey with stuffing and all the traditional trimmings on Thanksgiving Day in many years (excluding last year when I spent the holiday with my adopted brother and his wonderful family) so it has become less important to me in many ways than it was when I was a child. No, the holiday is about so much more than that now. Today I was given a gift that will remind me of this for years to come. It's a drawing. A simple drawing done by a complete stranger. But the story behind it will leave me with tears of joy for years to come.
I don't know why I did it, really. I just had this feeling deep in my gut that told me I needed to go to my favorite Starbucks. I figured it was a craving for caffeine or a Pumpkin Spice Latte perhaps. Those are pretty yummy. After making pumpkin cheesecake muffins last night, I figured it was a pumpkin craving, so I listened to my instincts. I combed my hair, threw on my jeans and boots and grabbed a jacket. It was cold and raining outside - something I'm not used to here in Los Angeles. I bundled up warm, looking forward to the free wifi and warmth in the biggest Starbucks in the area. It's not far from the El Camino College, so the seats were usually always taken up by students, but I knew there would be a seat at the end of the bar for me. There usually always was. I could play on the internet for free (though I have wifi at home) and watch the people come and go. I love people, but I love people watching even more. I've always been that way.
I got to Starbucks and the parking lot was so full I had to park quite a distance away from the front entrance. I didn't mind, though. Let the college students with heavy bags or the elderly people park closer, I thought to myself. I didn't have anything that couldn't get wet with a bit of rain.
As I neared the door, I noticed a man sitting in a chair at a table, huddled in a fuzzy brown blanket, a hood pulled over his head and his eyes closed. He was wearing warm clothes, but something about him still seemed cold. He was one of the Forgotten People of Los Angeles, one of the many hundreds in the homeless population. I hated when the homeless guys would stand at the freeway off ramps begging for money with cardboard signs written in fresh, black sharpie marker. They would stare people down, trying visually to force people into handing them loose change or dollar bills. I wasn't fooled. I knew what they did with the money. They bought drugs or alcohol - and sharpie markers. I always refused to give money to a homeless person. Food is something else entirely. But something about this young man stood out to me. Still, I walked right past. As I opened the door, I thought to myself that if I were him, I'd much rather be inside drinking a hot coffee, than shivering just barely out of the rain, still out in the cold. I thought about that young man the whole time I stood in line.
"Can I help you Ma'am," the voice on the other side of the counter asked. He broke me out of the near trance-like state I was in.
"Yes, please. Can I have..." I paused. I hadn't even decided on what I had wanted. Not completely. "... a soy gingerbread latte," I smiled "and a tall coffee."
"Can I get your name for the Latte," he asked me.
I gave my name and he wrote it on my cup. Then he handed me the tall coffee and totaled my charge. I had forgotten for quite some time that I had the Starbucks app on my iphone, and when I opened it I found an abundance of funds I hadn't remembered purchasing. It had been quite some time since I had used the app, and I knew this was the reason I had needed to go to Starbucks that day.
I took the tall coffee out to the shivering young black man clutching the fuzzy brown blanket he wore tied around his neck like a cape. I touched his shoulder and he turned to look at me. I hadn't planned on saying anything, just setting down the coffee and walking away, but his eyes had been closed and I didn't want to startle him, or worse yet, take the chance he wouldn't see it and let it get as cold as he was.
"You look cold" I said, and turned to walk back inside. He looked up and smiled at me, perfect teeth all in a perfect row, a smile of genuine surprise and gratitude. My heart lifted.
"Excuse me," a man in a maroon knit cap said to me, as he grabbed a chair across the table from the cold young man. "Is there any way I could trouble you for one of those, and maybe a breakfast sandwich?"
I laughed. Any other day I would have thought to myself "the audacity of some people! I do a random act of kindness and now someone else has the balls to come right out and ask for personalized service? I did this for him because he DIDN'T ask." But that voice in the back of my head told me again that I needed to be there at that moment. There was a reason I was at the Starbucks. I believe those two guys were that reason. So, I honored his request. As I was walking back into the store to collect my own drink and order a small meal and coffee for another homeless patron on the sidewalk, he continued talking to me. I didn't hear it all because the noise of studying college kids drowned him out, but I already knew what he wanted. Whatever else he was saying, I'd come back with his coffee and gather from him.
I walked back up to the register. The same young man was there still.
"Can I help you," he asked me again.
"Yeah," I replied. "There's another very cold gentleman outside that would like a tall coffee and a breakfast sandwich." The cashier smiled at me. His smile was almost as surprised and every bit as genuine as the young man who received a coffee without asking for one. That smile was infectious.
The sandwiches always take a minute to heat, so when he handed me the coffee I took it straight out to the man in the maroon knit cap. He looked at me and smiled, stood to receive his offering and said thank you. I wondered to myself how frequently they had been ignored. How often were these men not seen by society? How long had they been forgotten by the world at large?
I was a coward. I always had been. I'd wanted to sit and talk with the homeless people from time to time, to get their stories and ask them what life was like on the streets, but I'd always been afraid to. I didn't want them to see me as just another nosy brat who had everything and was just there to 'interview' them for some school project or turn them into a curiosity satisfied. This day, that changed. I let go of my cowardice. It had no control over me.
I went back inside once more to collect my own drink and the breakfast sandwich, and when I came back out there were still only the two of them at the table. An empty seat still remained at their table - so I took it. It was cold out, but I had thought to bundle up on my way out the door earlier. I'd be fine, even without a brown fuzzy blanket-cape. The two men warmed their hands on the cups of coffee and smiled at me.
We sat and talked, the maroon capped man being far more talkative than his caped counterpart. We talked about politics and society at large, even going back to WWII, a subject of deep passion for my historical curiosity. He seemed extremely knowledgeable.
"You really know your American and world history," I told him.
"I have deep roots here," he replied. "I'm originally from Pennsylvania, but I got roots in history."
As we talked about travel (he asked what I did for a living and I told him I was a Flight Attendant) he took out a tattered piece of blank, white drawing paper and began to sketch something. From a small bag he produced an array of graphite pencils and charcoal, along with a flag-folded piece of newspaper he used as a smudging tool. He would rough it up from time to time on the sidewalk beneath his feet. He talked endlessly to me about how he loved art and he always dreamed of being a matte painter for plays. He almost made it once, he said. But a friend of his stole the phone number for the contact he had, and he never got the job. He always loved to draw and paint though. He specialized in backgrounds. He bent over to sharpen the lead of his pencil on the pavement and continued to sketch.
"You know," he said, "I've been told that artists only get paid after they die. I don't believe that. I want to travel across the country drawing what I see. Van Gogh was crazy, they said. I mean, he sliced off his ear. I guess he was pretty crazy. But I'm not crazy. And someday I'll be a paid artist."
He told me about a project currently taking place at the LA Mission. They were putting on a play for Skid Row. He urged me to find out more information about the event, and maybe come see it sometime. He didn't remember the name of the production, but he wanted to get a job doing the set paintings for them. He also told me that they occasionally had foul language in the production that he felt they could have done without.
"When you're acting, it's art. And you can convey those emotions and thoughts without the bad language. Don't get me wrong, I can swear with the best of them, and occasionally I have, but I always end up regretting it later. We hear enough of that out on the streets. Something about hearing it in the play just really got to me though. It just seemed so .... harsh. It made me, like, shiver. It was just too much. They could have done better without it. But I want to see it again."
I studied his face as we sat there. He had a highly chiseled face. He was actually a rather handsome man, with a solid jaw, high cheek bones, wide set dimples and eyes that sparkled as he spoke about art.
We talked about foreign affairs, such as the Monarchy in the United Kingdom, the Presidential term length in Ireland (seven years, for those who don't know) and the differences of political freedom between us and them.
"You know what," I said after long last, "I'd much rather sit out here and talk to the two of you than sit in there and be ignored by everyone else," I smiled. The caped young man smiled at this. He was, by all accounts, extremely quite throughout the entire conversation.
"They're all busy studying," my maroon capped friend said to me. "They're too busy to have a conversation."
We talked a while longer, and when I finished the last bit of my Gingerbread Latte, the man in the maroon cap decided to show me what he had been sketching. I sat there in silence a moment. He told me what it was and I smiled. I had already figured that part out. It wasn't a Van Gogh. But it was a masterpiece...
"It's beautiful," I said, with utmost sincerity. I delicately took the paper offered to me. I can only imagine the look on my face was very close to the same look the man in the blanket gave to me when I set a coffee before him.
I asked each in turn what their names were. The man in the brown fuzzy cape was Eric, he said, so quiet I could barely hear him. I reached out a hand and he took it. He shook my hand with a shy grip and a flash of brown eyes that briefly looked directly into mine. He had become so accustomed to being ignored that he hadn't known how to react to the entire forty-five minutes I had joined them at their modest table. But the smile he flashed at me in that moment was as genuine as the first one I saw him give to me. And I smiled back just as genuinely. I was proud to shake his hand.
"And you are..." I said to the man in the maroon cap, offering my hand to him.
"My name is Zachary."
"Well, Zachary, Eric, it's very nice to meet you both. I originally came down here just to have a quick coffee, but I'm glad I stayed a while."
Zachary took my hand and shook it gently. Then, he handed me the drawing once more, indicating I should take it with me, as a thank you for the meal and coffee for him and his friend. Gladly, I accepted his offer. Then I did something that surprised even me.
I reached over to where Zachary sat and I hugged him. It wasn't some halfway attempt. It was a genuine hug with my arms around his neck. He melted. I could feel it in his grip. His face lit up, he smiled ear to ear, his eyes sparkled again. He hugged me back. Something told me it had been a long time since anyone had hugged him at all - especially like that. When I let go, he shook my hand again, then lifted it to his mouth and kissed it gently.
"Thank you," he said with a tiny tear in his eye he tried to conceal. "Thank you." Finally, he lost control and a fat, happy teardrop rolled down his cheek.
"Have a happy Thanksgiving, Guys. And if they do that play at the LA Mission again, maybe I'll see you there."
And the drawing he gave to me on this rainy afternoon?
It's a portrait. Of me.
It might not look a lot like what you see in photos of me. But he drew me as he saw me. And he saw me as someone like him - an artist with a kind soul. He saw me as a person. Not as a female, not as a pretty girl or as a redhead, or even as a flight attendant. He didn't see the color of my eyes. He didn't see how small or large my waist was. He didn't care how tall I stood. He's an artist. He saw my heart. He drew me as his sister - a kindred spirit and a soul that his soul recognized. In his portrait, I'm not white, black, asian, hispanic... I'm family. I'm someone he knows.
I'm the stranger who gave him a hug.
For information on the play at the LA Mission, click here.
For details on how to help the LA Mission, click here.
"To Give is To Receive"