What would you do if a stranger sat down five or ten feet away from you—hunched over with life’s burdens and needing to talk?
That’s the scenario I found myself in last Monday. It was the end of a long workday, and I had just sat down at a table outside my favorite grocery store. I hadn’t even finished my milk and cookie when an older man in a patriotic baseball cap walked up and took a seat at the table next to mine.
“Can I talk to you?”
“You look approachable,” he said. I was wearing a long-sleeved jacket, wraparound sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat.
Boy, did this guy need to talk. Told me all about how he had lost his job ten months ago, all the hard times since then, how hard it is for a sixty-three-year-old to find work, and all the fruitless interviews.
“Makes me wonder, God, what did I do wrong?” he said.
Something about his demeanor reminded me of that poignant Frank Sinatra song Angel Eyes.
I didn’t tell the man I’m a career counselor. I just listened. Sometimes that’s all people need. Somewhere in this conversation, we exchanged first names.
“Carl” wasn’t homeless, but darn close. It turns out he did have a job—with a retailer on the far side of town. The next morning was his first day of orientation.
But he didn’t have a way to get there. Can you imagine not being able to buy an eighteen-dollar (monthly) bus pass?
He kept talking and I kept listening—all the while I’m gently guarding my purse and grocery bag. Carl casually mentioned that his next paycheck was 22 days away.
I kept listening for inconsistencies in his story. Couldn’t find any. There was no question he’d been beaten down by life, but he wasn’t cursing or spewing. Just venting—a lot. Please don’t do that on the job.
Burnout Happens to the Best of Us
Have you ever been so burned out from a boss or former boss that the venting spilled over into the rest of your life? Even into future job interviews?
As a career counselor, I would sometimes see this in my students. Early in my career, I caught a glimpse of this in myself.
Like everyone else in that situation, I had to self-correct: to let go of past frustrations so I could move forward. I wanted to give Carl a pep talk along these lines, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
Finally I broke in. “I need to look at my watch for a very deliberate reason, okay?” I didn’t want him to think I was checking the time out of boredom.
“Okay,” he said, and his tone was almost dutiful.
Eighteen Minutes to Go
My watch said 5:42 pm. The bank across the parking lot would be closing at 6.
“It sounds like you need a way to get to your job in the morning,” I said.
Yes. Anything would help. He had tried social service agencies. He had tried churches. At least one told him he had to be a member.
“Now I’m no biblical scholar,” Carl said, “but that didn’t sound right to me.” We had a good laugh about the woman at the well.
At one point Carl said with raw humility, “I’m appealing to my fellow human beings.”
Whoa. Can you imagine? Now I’m no biblical scholar, but I seem to recall something about “what you did to the least of these.”
Even now as I recall Carl’s words, they pierce my heart and reduce me to silence: Who among us hasn’t had to rely on the kindness of strangers?
Who among us wouldn’t cautiously step out of our comfort zone to help a stranger?
Back to Carl
“I’m walking over to the bank,” I told him calmly. “I’ll leave something for you in an envelope with one of the tellers.” It all sounded so secretive.
As I stood up, I said with a smile, “And you’re not going to use it for drugs, right? Or alcohol?”
I had made that mistake once before—not with a stranger but a childhood friend who wanted fifty bucks for a car repair. Car repair, my eye.
So forgive me if this time around, I was leery. Carl put his hands up and assured me he wouldn’t use it for drugs or alcohol. Looking back, I would have been surprised if he drank at all.
“Which teller?” he asked.
How should I know which teller?
“The one closest to the door when you walk in,” I said. “I’ll give them your name and description.”
So that was our plan. We agreed it would take about ten minutes. Carl launched back into a talking spree. I pointed gently toward the bank. Clock is ticking.
When I reached the teller’s window and shared my simple request, she smiled, looked at me with pity, and told me in so many words it didn’t work that way. Duh.
So I withdrew some cash, had the teller put it in a crisp white envelope, dropped the envelope into my bag, and headed toward the door.
Please, Lord, let this all go as planned. As I walked out of the bank, I even gave the Lord an out, thinking I could just hold on to the money and slip quietly toward home. But I didn’t feel called to do that.
Instead I walked back to the table I had left five minutes ago. Carl was still sitting there—making notes on a tiny pad of paper. Or was he checking his phone? I couldn’t tell. But he looked up when he saw me.
“One and done,” I said. And I handed him the sealed envelope.
He stood up, triumphant. I couldn’t tell if he was grateful, relieved, or merely surprised I had come back. But his whole posture had changed.
“Let this be a new start,” I said.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. He held the envelope with both hands.
“Without even knowing how much is in here, I know I can get my bus pass. And what’s the best way to make a good impression at work? Show up on time! Now I can do that. And I’m going to keep my mouth shut tomorrow! Friends tell me I talk too much.”
Then he said something about me being an angel.
Talk to my family, Carl. Or my confessor.
“God bless you,” he continued. “I’m never going to see you again, but I’ll think of you. I will.”
I’ll think of you too, Carl. And forgive me for feeling a tad relieved that we’re never going to see each other.
Carl could be laughing at my expense, but I don’t think so. I started to check up on his story—then stopped myself. I’m glad I did. If you’re going to go so far as to help someone, why not show them the respect of taking them at their word? The quote at the end of this Pep Talk says it all.
“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day,” we’re told. You know the rest: “Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
Yet while we’re helping someone learn how to fish—whether it’s a stranger getting back on his feet, a loved one going through a tough time, or a new co-worker still learning the ropes—why not feed them a few fish along the way?
At some point we are all that stranger getting back on our feet, the loved one going through a tough time, and the new co-worker learning the ropes. How good are we at appealing to our fellow human beings?
“You have to have a little faith in people.”
– last line in the film Manhattan