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Image by M.T ElGassier
Week #2
Homeless in the City

It was almost lunch time. I always go to the gym across the street from my office at lunch time.

“Can I get you to look over the briefing before you go? I was thinking we can send it out this afternoon?” Kelly was at my office door again. She’s made it a habit to walk in anytime I leave the door open even a crack. It’s driving me completely insane just how much hand-holding she needs.

“Sorry Kelly, I have to go. Otherwise, you know I’ll miss my class. You can email it and I’ll try to look it over when I’m back.” It’s going to be another long day with all that’s piling up. But if I don’t make it to the gym I’ll miss my workout and gain nothing other than more weight. I picked up my gym bag and walked out.

 

While waiting at the light for the walk signal, across from me I could see a homeless man sitting on the side-walk. He seemed quite tall, though his shoulders were hunched and he seemed to make an effort to look small and inconspicuous. His face was disfigured with a long scar going down the right side from the far end of the temple to the edge of the mouth. It made the right side look droopy and took away the normal symmetry of a face. His hair was a mess with one side flattened to the head and the other standing up. It was text book bed head. His clothes were threadbare and dirty. He made me think of defeat and despair though he looked almost younger than me. For a moment, I wondered what had brought him to this.

As I hurried past him to get to the gym I noticed his hat next to him only had a few coins. I made a mental note to give him some change on the way back.

 

The lunch class at the gym was exactly what I needed. 45 minutes of mindlessly following Pilates routines had me sweating buckets. Best thing about the gym was it didn’t ask me to use my brain, just the rest of my muscles. It was the perfect mid-day break. I had a quick wash and walked back crafting my mental to-do list for the afternoon.

 

“Can you help? I haven’t eaten in two days.” The homeless man asked as I was passing. I had planned to give him some change on the way back but lost in my mental list-making I had almost forgotten. Rummaging through my purse I realized it was empty. I never carried much cash anyway because there were so many other forms of payment these days. Today was his unlucky day.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any cash.” I could see his face falling as I uttered the words. It was so pitiful it broke my heart. “If you don’t mind walking with me, I was going to get a sandwich from the café over there. I can get you one as well?”

“Really?” he seemed surprised. For a moment it was like a veil had been lifted, his eyes were keen and curious as they studied my face. They had an unusually intelligent light for a homeless person. Soon as the surprise passed the veil descended, all intelligence left his eyes and he went back to exuding the air of despair and defeat. It was almost like a cloak had been pulled over to take the light out of his eyes.

 

He followed me to the café and we both got a sandwich each, a drink and a bag of chips. On second thought, I bought a gift card and gave it to him so a few more meals would be covered.

“Thank you miss. Hope you have a blessed day.” His voice and his manner matched the general subservient mindlessness associated with the homeless.

As he walked away my eyes lingered a moment on his back, still wondering what his story was. The transformation earlier had been rather surprising. My job was to read people. My Spidey sense told me he wasn’t the standard homeless person, if there ever was such a thing.

 

That afternoon, work went long and it was well past seven when I finally left the office. Soon as I walked out I noticed the homeless person from lunch time was sitting on the sidewalk near the entrance. He was peering inside the building, every minute or so.

 

“Hello” he immediately got to his feet and greeted me soon as I walked out. I found it both funny and sad to realize that the only man waiting for me was a homeless guy and even that was only because I had bought lunch for him. There was something definitely wrong with my life.

 

I smiled and acknowledged him with a head nod.

 

“You work long hours.”

 

I wasn’t completely sure what to say to that. Should I explain that I really didn’t have much of a life outside of work? Should I tell him that I still had at least 2 more hours of work in my bag that I plan to finish up tonight? He might feel more pity for me than for himself after that! Worst case, it might reaffirm that homelessness was a better life than being stuck in the rat race the working man called life…

 

“Would you like some dinner?” I asked instead. I figured it’s the most likely reason he’s stayed by the entrance. I know it’s a bad habit to encourage this behavior but how can I turn my back on someone going hungry? We all have our low points in life. Maybe with two back-to-back meals he’ll pick himself up and get a job. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying the humiliation of begging.

 

“Mind if I walk with you? I was heading that way.” He shortened his stride to match mine.

 

I should’ve felt uneasy that a homeless guy was following me home. But this was my city and I lived only a couple of blocks down the road. My building had a doorman. All that meant he can only follow me for a few minutes and even that with hundreds of people around us. But more than that, I just didn’t feel uneasy by his presence.

 

“You know there’s a men’s shelter a few blocks out? They have beds and meals. They also have a good program that helps with job training and even placement. If you have a little time stop by there.” I suggested. I know some homeless folks were sensitive. But he didn’t seem to mind the suggestion. Instead, he seemed curious.

 

“How do you know about the homeless shelter?”

 

“Folks at my office… we sometimes help out there.”

 

After  that, he walked in a thoughtful silence until we had reached my building.

 

“I’m here.” I pointed to the entrance. “Are you sure you don’t want me to get you something for dinner?” I felt reluctant to send him emptyhanded.

 

“I’ll take you up on that. Where are you going to have dinner?” he asked. The light was back in his eyes.

 

“Uh… I was thinking maybe the sandwich shop right there?”

 

“I had a sandwich for lunch and I have a gift card to buy more tomorrow. How about the sushi restaurant in your building?” He seemed to know his way around the place. “Can I meet you there in an hour? I have to go by the shelter first and you probably want to drop your bags off before dinner.” He said with a smirk.

 

I was momentarily taken back. Was he thinking this was a date or something? I was just trying to help out a man in need.

Before I got to disabuse him of any crazy notions he may have formed, he had walked away. He was hunched over once again and he had a little limp as he walked as well. Something I hadn’t noticed earlier. I watched him disappear in the crowd before walking into my building, shaking my head.

 

I debated the merits of going to the sushi place. I really liked the place. Sushi was one of my favorite meals and the place downstairs had a good selection. Their firecracker tuna was one of my favorites. All these were reasons for going there. I had a ton of work still to get through and I didn’t date – not even a delusional homeless guy. Those were the reasons to not go. The restaurant may not let him in if he tried to go in by himself though. That tipped the balance and ultimately made the decision for me. I would hate to see someone turned away from a meal he was looking forward to. It seemed rather inhuman.

 

I was only a couple of minutes late when I finally got there.

 

“Hello, table for two please.”

 

“Oh, your date is already here ma’am. this way.” The hostess replied soon as she saw my face.

 

“Huh? My date?” I was staring with my mouth open. But the hostess had started walking without looking back, confident in the habit that people will follow where she leads. Though I was completely positive she was mistaken, I had no other option but to follow her.

 

She walked over to a table for two and pulled a chair out for me to sit. The tall, well-dressed man sitting in the other seat had his back to me.

 

“I think you are mistaken. He’s not the person I’m meeting.” I spoke to the hostess before turning to him to apologize. The hostess looked to the man.

 

“She’s not mistaken. I am waiting for you. Won’t you join me for dinner?” he stood up and invited me to sit pointing at the chair the hostess was holding. The hostess was gazing at him with a dreamy expression. If not for the surprise of who it was, I would’ve matched her.

 

His height matched the homeless person but nothing else did. The black shirt with thin vertical silver lines and the dark blue denim were perfectly tailored and obviously expensive. His flawlessly groomed jet black hair was styled away from his face in slight waves. His clean shaven face, though familiar, had no trace of the disfiguring scar or the smudges of dirt.

“Can I get you anything else?” the hostess asked gazing at his face, once I mechanically sat down. It was obvious she didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t blame her. I obviously didn’t want to give up the opportunity to sit with him either.

 

“Give us a few minutes.” He smiled the most charming smile I’ve ever seen - real life or fantasy.

 

“Sure.” The hostess said in a disappointed voice and turned to leave.

 

“Excuse me… I was actually expecting to meet someone else here. We’ll need another chair to go in our table when he comes. He might look like a homeless person but he’s ok, he’s with me.” I rushed to explain to the hostess who looked at me with disbelief. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my description of the guest I was expecting or because I was expecting anyone else when I had this man sitting in front of me. But with a disapproving nod she walked away. I decided I’d better keep an eye on the door, just in case.

 

“It’s going to be disappointing if you are that keen to see the homeless man.”

 

“I wouldn’t want him to be turned back when he gets here. That’s all.” I explained.

 

“I never introduced myself. I’m …”

 

“I know who you are Oppa. I’m a big fan. I’d recognize you anywhere.” I interrupted before he could finish his introduction. I was acutely aware that my casual shorts and tee was absurdly inadequate to meet my oppa for dinner. If I had so much as dreamed of seeing him even in passing I would’ve dressed better and put some makeup. This was embarrassing.

 

“Really? You would recognize me anywhere?” his eyes were twinkling as a slight smile played across his lips. Those eyes were familiar. Must be from all the shows I’ve watched.

 

Before I could respond though, he changed the topic. “So what’s the story with the homeless guy? Why did you make a date with him?” he asked gazing at me like he was trying to put a puzzle together.

 

“It’s not a date. He was waiting for me until I got done with work just because he was hungry. So I offered to buy him dinner. I guess he wanted to try something a little more expensive than sandwiches and that’s probably why he asked for sushi.”

 

“Are you in the habit of buying random strangers expensive dinners then?” he had cocked his head to the side and was intently watching my face. Both the question and his gaze were uncomfortable.

 

“Only if they are going hungry and need a picker upper.”

 

“Do you think it’ll help him to get free meals though? Wouldn’t it be better to learn to earn your meals?”

 

“How many things did you learn on an empty stomach? I personally do better learning when my basic needs aren’t distracting me.” I realized I was a tad more sarcastic than intended. What he was asking was standard mentality when it came to homelessness. “The truth is if you can feed the homeless then they have one less reason to beg. If they don’t have to beg then it frees up their time for other things.  At least with some of them you can guide them to use that time to develop new skills that would get them to earn a living. It’s a big domino and not every homeless person will get there. But I’d like to think the least we can do is give them a chance to try.”

 

“Don’t you think they’ll just spend the extra time doing drugs or stealing or some other underworld thing?”

 

“You are assuming everyone is lazy and are looking to be a free-rider on hard working society. I’m sure there are some that would but again, I’d rather give them a chance to choose a better path.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Why not? I’m here because someone gave me a chance to reach beyond my early circumstances. If buying a dinner for a homeless person here and there can help them to actually have a choice in their lives, it seems like a very small way to pay it forward.”

 

“Hmm…” Oppa looked thoughtful. He had his gaze fixed on the menu in front of him but it didn’t look like he was reading it anymore.

 

Even though I couldn’t see his eyes, it was my first time seeing Oppa’s face at close range. His eyebrows had always fascinated me. I could barely move my eyebrows but Oppa’s could convey amusement to displeasure and every other emotion in-between. He could practically carry a complete conversation just using them. Right now, they were pulled together in concentration. It was surreal to be staring at them.

 

It was surreal to be sitting opposite him at the same dinner table in real life.

 

“Have you decided on what to order?” he asked without lifting his gaze. It was almost like he knew I was studying him and he was giving me time to catch up.

 

“Uh… I was going to give a few more minutes to see if the homeless person might come.”

 

Oppa stared at me for a minute. The deep brown of his eyes were mesmerizing and momentarily familiar. Again, I imagined its familiar most likely because I’ve binge watched him for a while. He seemed exasperated right now though. I wasn’t quite sure why. What did he have against feeding a homeless guy? Or was he mad his dinner was getting late?

 

“Actually, let’s go ahead and order Oppa. We can add another order if he joins us.”

 

Oppa looked at the hostess and she was at our table in a heartbeat. I didn’t know she took orders, but she seemed eager to serve today. She took our order and left with a promise of a speedy return. True to her word, we had our drink order and a complimentary appetizer within minutes.

 

“I could get used to this level of service.” I observed with a smile as she left.

 

“Not if you take homeless guys to dinner”

 

Even though the comment was meant to be sarcastic, his voice was soft and his eyes were smiling. I realized I was holding my breath and staring at the beautiful face in front of me.

 

“Didn’t you say something about being a fan and being able to recognize me anywhere?” he continued in the same soft voice, holding my gaze.

 

“Huh?... yes, I would recognize you anywhere.”

 

“Really? Then why didn’t you recognize me at lunch?”

 

“Lunch? Did I meet you at lunch? Were you at the gym?” I was certain I would’ve noticed if he had been in the same room as me anywhere.

 

Oppa looked slightly entertained and perhaps a bit annoyed. But instead of responding, he ruffled his hair till the ends were sticking up and then shifted in his chair to round his shoulder until he was hunched over.  Then he squinted one eyes and asked, “How about now?” His voice had become gravelly and subservient.

 

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the voice, posture and manner of the homeless guy. Oppa’s face was still a mismatch without the scar but otherwise it was dead on.

 

“You were the homeless man? Why?” I still couldn’t believe it. What would possess him to beg on the streets?

 

“Research…”

 

“For what? Are you doing a Sherlock Holmes movie?” I had immediately thought of The Man with the Twisted Lip where Sherlock uncovers the double life of the wealthy Neville St. Clair and the beggar Hugh Boone.

 

“Not exactly. Though the idea of playing Sherlock is appealing… no, I was researching the NGO that runs the men’s shelter here. It’s one of the candidates for a donation from my Foundation this year and I wanted to see how they treat the homeless and whether they really help them. Best way to do that is to experience their services firsthand.”

 

“Oh… I didn’t know you chose the charities you give to yourself.”

 

“Why wouldn’t I?”

 

“Well, you generally have a horde of people around you anytime I’ve seen you online. I just assumed you had like an entire management team that dealt with all the administrative work.”

 

“But the whole point of the donation is to help charities that are doing good things go further. Why would I give my name and money to something I know nothing about?”

 

“Really? Aren’t you like working around the clock? I mean you do at least one mini-series each year and there’s fashion shows, advertisements, concerts, fan meets, your you tube channel and I’m sure another twenty things I don’t know about. I figured you just wouldn’t have that kind of time to choose the charities yourself. Maybe choose the theme for the donations but not this type of leg work to select them.”

 

“I am lucky to have all the work you mentioned. And I’m lucky to have all the people supporting me. But really, every time I get to donate something it’s like getting to be Santa Claus. There is nothing better than that feeling when you get to touch someone’s life and bring a little joy to them and lift them out of misery a little. How can I feel that if I don’t do the leg work myself?”

 

If there had ever been any chance that I was going to walk out of this dinner without completely falling for Oppa, it was now gone. The earnestness with which he said these last sentences had sealed my fate. He will forever be my perfect man. I was happy to just watch his face and enjoy listening to his voice.

“Here we go.” The hostess had decided to bring the food herself. She took particular care to place everything perfectly in front of Oppa. Given her attention to detail I half expected her to pick up the napkin and place it on his lap too. Oppa was a tad fast for her though. She refilled the drinks and walked away looking disappointed.

“So how did the research go? Did the men’s shelter pass the test?”

 

“I had to cut it short. I had a dinner date to make.”

 

“What does that mean? Will you not choose them then?”

 

“You said you volunteer there. Why don’t you tell me whether it is worthy or not?”

 

The weight my next words would carry suddenly gave me pause. They had the power to give many more homeless people in the city the ability to choose their own path. I felt a little light headed.

 

“Why would you take my word? You don’t really know me.”

 

“Well, let’s see… You took a complete stranger to a café to buy him lunch where most people would just ignore and keep walking. Then you guided him to the shelter and nudged him towards job training, in the nicest way I’ve seen anyone treat another human in a long time. You lectured your “idol” the first ten minutes of dinner on why we should give everyone a second chance and told me to respect everyone’s right to choose their own path. Do you honestly believe there’s someone better I can ask to help make this decision?”

 

Oppa had reached over the table and touched my wrist lightly as he spoke gazing into my eyes. It felt like the tether that was keeping me grounded at that moment. Without much thought I turned my palm up and he interlaced our fingers.

 

“So, I get to be Santa’s helper this time then?”

 

“If you are up to it, I imagine you’d be a great Santa’s helper every time.”

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