The homeless man often came by our store. We were near two highway overpasses where he liked to spend his nights, and when it rained or was bitter cold, he knew he could sit in a corner and nurse a cup of coffee for hours without being troubled by any of us. He was quiet, a little ragged, but clean, and sometimes his eyes seemed focused on places and times far removed from us.
I kept his coffee warmed and occasionally slipped him a plate of food that, oops, hadn't been made right so would he eat it and save me from binning it? He wouldn't take charity, wouldn't take food for pity, but if I could convince him that it was a mistake, that the eggs were supposed to be over-easy and not scrambled or the bread on the sandwich should have been white and not wheat...well, then he'd eat it to save us having to toss it. I got very inventive with our mistakes. I mean, how many ways can you think of to convince an intelligent man that you cut the wrong freakin' pie? In the end, my fairly tragic waitressing abilities made it easier - he often watched me botch the job, and I think he must have strained something a time or two, trying not to laugh. It wasn't much of a stretch to believe I'd made a mistake that was mutually beneficial.
What seemed to bother him most about hanging about our store was that he often didn't have enough money to leave much (if any) of a tip. He really hated that. He would apologize, hang his head, and shuffle on out before the morning crush (he always came in around midnight or so, maybe a bit later, when we were quietest), and he'd be gone until the next bit of bad weather. Once in a while, the manager would think of a job that the homeless man could help out with - moving boxes, hauling some trash, mopping a bit of floor - and then he'd get a little cash and smile so sweetly because he could order his own meal, pay for it, and leave a tip.
I never asked him why he was homeless. It seemed rude. Sometimes I'd see him under one of the bridges or shuffling down the side of the road looking for cans and other recyclables, and every now and then he'd be sweeping or doing some kind of work at a shop along the road where I lived. He had a backpack full of his life. He had all his teeth, didn't smoke, and didn't behave like someone who did drugs on a regular basis. He spoke clearly enough, most of the time...but every now and then, he'd be a little disconnected, a little distant. I think he might have been mentally ill, someone who'd been turned out of treatment when the funds ran out, someone who'd lost himself along the way.
I called him sugar, or sweetie, or honey, or darlin' - that's the beauty of living in the South, if you don't know someone's name you call them sugarhoneysweetiedarling and you're covered. I didn't know his name...I never asked and he never offered. Maybe he didn't remember, or maybe he didn't want to be himself, or maybe he was just that private. He didn't mind me calling him one of those substitutes, though. I guess it's nice to have someone call you an endearment when you're used to the harder words flung at you like chunks of verbal stone while you trudge alongside the road...even if that someone is overweight, insecure, and caught up in her own internal struggles. Maybe that's why he always sat in my section...he recognized a kindred spirit behind the cartoon necktie.
One cold, sleety night, he came in a little later than usual. He was wearing clean clothes, his hair and beard were trimmed, and he was smiling. He sat in my section and I poured the coffee without asking - he always liked it black with sugar (on days he hadn't eaten well, he'd put in more sugar). This time, he actually ordered his meal, complete with desert. While he ate, he told me about the job he'd found, one that didn't mean he had to stay inside (bound, suffocating, straight-jacketed by corporate employment rules and regulations), one that let him have the freedom he seemed to need to maintain his equilibrium. He was pleased, and so was I - someone else had seen the human being beneath the "homeless" label and offered him a position with their landscaping company. He liked working with plants, getting his hands into the earth, bringing life and color to empty spaces. He spent a long time at his table, enjoying his dinner and a slice of French Silk pie (my personal favorite, too) before asking for the check. I placed it on his table and we chatted a little more about nothing of consequence, until a group of young folks jostled their way in for a post-clubbing snack to steady their drug-frazzled nerves.
While I was getting their drinks, the homeless man left, leaving his check and payment on the table. I took the kids' orders and bussed the now empty table, collecting the ticket and the cash he'd left without really looking at it. It went into my apron pocket until I could get to the register. When I finally got to it, maybe half an hour later, I was stunned. For an eight-dollar (or so) tab, he'd left me a twenty. Just left it. He didn't want change - he'd written a note on the check thanking me for being so nice to him, and telling me how bad he'd felt all the times he couldn't leave me a tip. He hoped this made up for that. Holy crap! I could have cried - new job or not, he needed that money more than I did, and he knew I wouldn't take it if he'd stayed, so he waited until I was too busy to argue with him.
I never did see him again. Once in a while, when I am in a dark mood, I wonder if he really had a job or if he just decided to have done with the messiness of life. Most of the time, though, I like to think of my nameless, homeless man digging in the dirt, putting in flowers and greenery, keeping grass trim, giving trees a friendly pat "hello" as he walks past them, earning his keep and finding his peace.
That was the best tip I ever got, in more ways than one.
Quote of the day...er...week...umm...hey, look, a quote!!
"...besides love, independence of thought is the greatest gift an adult can give a child." - Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One
For old quotes, look here.
For old quotes, look here.