The young man stood on a median strip in Minneapolis, near the Walker Art Center. Traffic to the left was veering onto Lyndale. Cars on the right were heading toward Hennepin. He leaned against the stoplight. Well, leaned would be too strong a word. His back made only minimal contact with the yellow column. His body looked like a giant backward “C”, with his legs a couple of feet out from the base and his shoulders exaggeratedly slumped forward. Most drivers probably assumed he stood in a relaxed stance, but most drivers probably weren’t looking very long. It’s not Minnesota Nice to stare, you know.
Relaxed was how I perceived him at first, too, with the kind of peripheral vision that wanted to look but not see. The kind that doesn’t want to be caught looking. The kind that wants to convey an attitude of worldliness or, even better, invisibility, like the child’s game… if I can’t see you, then you can’t see me. But the light turned yellow about the same time I spotted him, and I knew that I’d be stopped at the intersection. Right next to him. Right where it’s so damned hard to pretend not to see.
He was maybe 20 years old. Tall and lean. His face was clean shaven except for the mustache that didn’t age him much. He wore blue jeans and a black t-shirt with some kind of artwork on it. His small cardboard sign was no more than 8 by 12 inches. It was full of writing, but all I could make out was the first word: “HOMELESS” in open-block letters that struck me as artistic. His blond hair was parted neatly down the middle. Long. Past his shoulders. Shoulders that curled more than you’d expect to see even from an awkward, shy adolescent; he held them away from the metal pole as if he didn’t deserve its support. His head continued along the curve of his back and hung forward slightly as well. And then his eyes. I noticed his eyes too. That’s how much I’d given up pretending we weren’t within arms reach of each other. They focused on the ground a few feet in front of him. Like he wanted to pretend he didn’t see any of us, either.
I don’t give money to the cardboard-sign holders. The admonitions ring in my head… they’re only going to spend it on booze or drugs. Maybe so. I only see them from the insularity of my car. I’ve never known any, never actually talked to them. They don’t tend to write books or get interviewed so I don’t know their stories. But today, not pretending, my heart saw something familiar and it really didn’t matter if he was homeless and needed money for the simplest necessities or if he would head to a drug dealer or liquor store at the end of the day. I needed to show kindness. I needed to do something that felt like love.
Still, I hesitated. Years of training are hard to break, even with a little voice shouting in your head. I reached for my purse and told myself that if I could get to my cash before the light turned green, I would give it to him. In my rearview mirror, I saw the man in the truck behind me hold his arm out the window and the young man moved toward it. He stood there for what felt like too long; doing what? He didn’t look like a conversationalist. What’s the etiquette for begging? What is the prescribed time for listening to someone in exchange for their folded bill? Damn… move already. Come back. The light is going to turn. I want to give you this. Finally! He walked to the front of the median, his back to me. I got his attention. “Excuse me.” He turned and I held my money out the window.
I looked directly at him. I saw his eyes looking down and away, his shoulders still shrinking inward on himself, his hair falling away from his face as he leaned toward my car. I know why I did it. Why I had to do it. I even told him as he took the money from my hand… even as the light turned green and the cars behind me began edging forward. “You remind me of my sons. I love them. Take care of yourself.”
I pulled away, thinking of my sons… the elder with his long blond hair and whispy indications of a mustache; the younger with his lean, wiry build; their sensitive eyes and artistic endeavors. They haven’t wanted to see me in over eighteen months, and the strangest things can make me miss them. Like a young man on a median.
So, I did something I’ve never done before because in an unguarded, unexpected moment I was reminded of the many ways I can no longer love my children, the ways I am prevented from taking care of them or even knowing how they are.
I want that young man to be okay. I want him to know that mothers love their sons, that we worry about them and miss them and wish that we could fix everything that aches in their heart and troubles their minds. I want him to know that he’s not alone, no matter how it seems, because somewhere there’s a woman who carries him in her heart forever. A ten-second sentiment probably isn’t going to do that, not even when accompanied by a ten dollar bill. But I can hope.
I’ve gotten so incredibly good at hoping.