"Guys, someone's coming. Should we grab our things?"
My two friends and I began walking hurriedly in the direction of our purses and shopping bags, piled on the ground in an alleyway close to where we had just finished lunch. The plan was to take some photos for my friend's new website, so when we spotted a wall splattered with brightly colored paint (a perfect background), we dropped our belongings right there on the sidewalk and began to shoot.
A man wearing a backpack and carrying a water cooler was slowly approaching. I scanned my friend's faces for any signs of nervousness, only because they don't live downtown (there's a lot of foot traffic here). "There are great backgrounds for photos over that way," he called out to us, pointing toward his left. "Really great, over there by the gun club."
Catching us off guard - but in a good way - I could see everyone was more at ease as he drew closer. "Oh really?" I replied. "Thank you so much!" and just as he passed by I blurted out "Can I take your picture?"
"Me?" He seemed surprised. "Sure," and he began to pose.
"Thanks!" I replied, positioning my camera at him. "What's your name?"
"Anthony," he answered in a strong, matter-of-fact voice. "I was in the Navy for seventeen years."
I had already gotten the portrait I wanted, almost within seconds. He was one of those people whose faces tell their story; a person whose eyes run deep. He proceeded to tell us about his Navy experiences, places he'd served (Desert Storm was one of many), and about life post-war. All things I could never in my life fathom.
"I've been homeless for one hundred and seventy-two days," he said. "I'm trying to get work wherever I can, man. I just picked up a thousand shells at the gun club for ten dollars." I didn't know how to respond. I was dripping sweat just existing on that particularly hot day, never mind working outside in the heat - for ten dollars.
"I don't do drugs," he continued, "and I'm not an alcoholic. I'm just trying to get some work wherever I can," he reiterated.
Anthony talked some more about life as a military veteran and how people need to pay more attention to the struggles that ensue. Ultimately, he said, people just want jobs. A sustainable life and future. All of which he plans to discuss with the City Council.
I felt bad that I didn't have anything valuable to offer him: advice, a job opportunity, City Council friends. I even regretted not having any cash on me. The least I could have done was buy him lunch or dinner as a kind gesture in return for what he gave me. There were a bunch of takeaways from this encounter, to be honest. The simplest one? A nice reminder that not everyone sucks. Not everyone is out to get you, or to get something from you. My friends and I didn't see this particular individual and think, Wait! Is HE going to take our purses? I'd be cautious of leaving my belongings out in the open anywhere, around anyone. This guy didn't care to take our stuff or even care that we had stuff; he offered us advice on where to take a good photograph.
It was clear that he was struggling, but you wouldn't know that because he wore it on his sleeve. This man was kind and gentle, optimistic even, despite his circumstances. He had an abundance of positive qualities that maybe a person in his shoes shouldn't have, which was the beauty of it. It made me reflect and think, what did I have? Luck, among so many other wonderful things, to have met him that day.