When I was 16, I worked at a law firm downtown as a summer intern. Every day, I’d go get lunch from this row of vendors – either a gyro, a hot dog, a kebab, or a burrito. Each one only took cash, so I got used to carrying around a bunch of cash, and every day, I’d pay for my meal, take all the change I got and anything in my pockets, and give it to a local homeless guy named Ivan. I’d also just say “Hi, Ivan” or “Nice seeing you, man” or something along those lines.
Ivan was a mid-20s black guy who had fought in Iraq, but had some severe PTSD and had run away from whatever family and friends he had and moved a few hundred miles to upstate New York. He was generally nice, but quiet, and obviously in a very bad place in his mind. He had a giant, raggedy beard, clothes that he had obviously just picked off the street, and I can’t remember if I ever saw him in any position other than a mixture of the fetal position and a squat. I gave him change every day that summer, until I had to go back to school.
Now, this story diverges here, and two very important outcomes arise.
First, about two months into this job, I stop by the gyro vendor, order my usual, and chat until he finishes it. I pull out my wallet, only to realize I don’t have any cash. I apologize, and run to the nearest ATM, but for some reason (my bank changed my PIN without informing me) I’m unable to withdraw cash. I come back, looking resigned to not eating lunch, but the gyro guy says “Look, I see what you do for Ivan everyday. Just take it, you deserve it.” I thank him profusely, and walk off, very happy. That’s the first part.
Secondly, I recently went back to town for the summer, and was eating lunch at a diner I always frequented in high school. I was talking to a friend, when I heard a voice behind me say “Excuse me…do you remember me?” I turn to look, and a tall, well-groomed man in business-casual clothes is standing next to my booth. I looked him up and down a few times before it clicked, and I said “Ivan? Really?” He looked at me, eyes shining as it clicked, and as I stood up to shake his hand, he moved and embraced me. I could tell he was on the verge of crying, and all he said was “Thank you.”
Apparently, in the intervening 5 years since I had seen him last, Ivan collected himself enough to get a job as a janitor. This in turn gave him the money to see a therapist, and he worked out many of his mental problems. He began sorting his life out, took advantage of his GI Bill, and worked his way up to a position at a local bank where he actually had people working for him. He told me that he had been at his lowest that summer when I saw him every day, and that he frequently thought of just sitting around and waiting for the end. However, the fact that I paid attention to him reminded him that there was still good in the world, and the money I gave him allowed him to buy at least one meal a day to subsist upon. He told me that were it not for me, he most likely wouldn’t even be close to the position he was in. We talked for half an hour until he had to go back to work, and he once again hugged me before he left.
I sat at that table for another 10 minutes with my friend, unable to speak because the tears leaking out of my eyes clouded my vision and were, unfortunately, soaking my sandwich.
Ivan never knew my name, and still doesn’t. I like to think that he never will, and that he’ll just remember that once upon a time, a young man behaved like a true human being.