He doesn't expect me to stop and look him in the eye. Most people don't. They might give him some money. They might just keep walking with a little shake of the head. They don't stop and stare at him with a puzzled look, like they're wondering why he asked. His stubbled, defeated face and his worn, torn clothes and the layers of grime on both explain more about that than most people care to know.
Me, I don't wonder why he asked for money, like he seems to think. Just surprised he picked me to ask. I forget how prosperous I can look when I'm cleaned up. It makes me look like a guy with change to spare.
"I'm hungry," the man mumbles, trying to answer the question I never asked. He meets my gaze, pleading for me to believe him, but now it's painfully obvious he's lying. I know that look too well. He's not hungry. He's thirsty, and not for water. But he's not blind yet. He can read eyes, too. He looks down at the pavement again.
Now I feel bad for making him feel worse. It's tearing me in two. If he really planned to buy food, right now I'd give him what little money I do have, even if it meant going hungry myself. But, I just can't help him buy more of what's slowly killing him. Words spill out of my mouth, trying to give him the benefit of a doubt that doesn't exist.
"Come on, let's get some sandwiches."
He hesitates, but only for a moment. Maybe he's grateful to me for pretending to believe his cover story. Maybe he hopes if he pretends too, he'll start to believe it himself.
We're a couple blocks away from a sandwich shop. My mind gropes for small talk to fill the silence as we walk. I can sense he needs me to say something, anything to make the situation feel normal. He still remembers what it was like to go eat in a restaurant with a friend, both knowing they were going to split the check. He still remembers dignity. He knows this ain't it, but he needs to pretend.
I've never been any good at small talk, though. The silence rebuilds the wall between us. By the time we're at the shop, he's most of the way back to feeling like a beggar. It doesn't matter anymore what I really think. In his mind I'm back in the crowds he sees every day, crowds of people thinking they're better than him.
But we made it this far, and there's familiar motions to go through, so we start to order. The girl behind the counter is young, pretty, smiling. She asks what we want on our sandwiches. I tell her to leave the onions off of mine, and then we both look to my companion. I'm still doing my best to pretend we're buddies, sitting down for a quick lunch together, nothing unusual here.
It's too late. He's at his breaking point, right here, right now. He seems to think answering this question will be like admitting he's a beggar in front of this young woman, in front of the whole lunch crowd. I can see the weight of his imagination on his shoulders, bowing him down with shame. He mumbles something. His voice is so low and strained I can barely hear, but it sounds like "Please... don't make me..."
I watch him crumble under the weight of what he imagines in our eyes, and there's nothing I can do. My mind freezes with shame of my own, shame at my role in this man's humiliation. I can't think of any way around the sandwich shop's official procedure. Somehow, the sandwiches get made, but not even the pretense of dignity survives. When he accepts the bag with his food, it only seems to add more weight to his shoulders.
I dig up the money to pay. Though I really can't afford to, out of old habit, I put an extra dollar in the cup marked "tips." I feel bad for the young lady behind the counter. She can tell something uncomfortable is happening here, even if she doesn't really know what it is.
Well, that's just too much for my new friend. He sees that extra dollar, on top of everything else I've put him through, and he snaps. Suddenly he's moving faster than he's moved at any time since I'd first laid eyes on him. He catches me totally by surprise. For a second, I'm afraid I just made my very last mistake, ever.
But it's not me he's after. It's the money. Anger isn't what broke him. It's thirst.
"I need that more than she does," he says, speaking clearly now. He grabs the dollar bill before I even finish pulling my hand back from the cup, before the girl's hand even begins reaching toward it. Then he's out the door. For the briefest moment, I have something in common with this pretty young woman. We both stare at his retreating back with our jaws hanging open in disbelief. Then the moment is over. Another dollar I can't afford goes into the tip cup, just so I can keep one unspoken promise I've made today. I mumble an apology and head for the door with my own sandwich.
I can still see my former companion, still walking quickly toward a nearby convenience store. If any doubt was left about what that dollar will buy, the last shred of doubt fades when he drops his sandwich into the garbage barrel in front of the door. All my good intentions haven't made his life any better. I was hoping to sit down with him, share a meal, maybe let him talk to me a bit about his life. I'm not a great talker but I'm a good listener. Sometimes there's a healing power in just having someone listen, really listen to you. I was hoping that might be what he was really thirsty for. Hoping it might help him fight that other thirst, the one taking his life away drop by drop.
I think about walking over there to rescue the sandwich from the garbage can. I'd hate to let it go to waste. It's in a plastic bag. It should still be clean. After a few moments, I decide against it. Maybe later on, when I'm not watching anymore, he'll get hungry enough to retrieve it himself. Part of me needs to believe there's still hope something good can come from all this.
I've still got my own sandwich. It'll be awhile before I get hungry enough to wish I'd taken his.
Besides, his has onions on it.