Updated: Feb 19
I saw the homeless man as I rounded the corner. He was standing in front of the bus stop while a hostile rain pelted down. He was middle aged, with a face that could have been kind had it not long ago learned to appear indifferent. Whatever misfortune had put him there, he hadn't been on the streets long; he lacked the haunted, decimated look of the old ones, those ravaged by alcohol, poor food, and the elements. I considered him as I approached. I remember vividly how the water ran down his ruined hat and off the end of his nose. His whole posture spoke of utter submission to the weather and the misery it caused: hands buried deep in overcoat pockets, shoulders hunched impossibly high, chin on chest. His eyes were closed.
The two middle-aged women standing nearby were clearly offended by his presence. They huddled together protectively, whispering behind gloved hands and casting glances from under stylish umbrellas. There was something about this scene that disturbed me profoundly as I took up my place at the stop. The bus was not due for another ten minutes, and the rain began to come down viciously. I'm not sure why I did it. Perhaps it was the arrogance with which those women surveyed the man. All I know is that something inside me stirred.
"Excuse me." He jumped as I spoke. I translated quickly from English to Norwegian, hoping I was using the right words.
"I see you don't have your umbrella with you today. Would you like to stand under mine?"
If I live to be very old, I will never forget the look in his eyes. My little umbrella provided much more than shelter that day as I raised it to cover us both. He seemed taller as he came to stand beside me. I smiled up at him, then smiled at the gaping women, who found the whole thing scandalous and unthinkable. I do believe it was one of my finer moments. The rain pounded on and on.
The bus arrived and I expected my new friend to join me for the ride to town, but he moved passed me. I sensed that he wanted to protect me from embarrassment, or further scandal. To shield me from the eyes of those people in quality clothing watching us as we boarded. He took his place at the back of the bus. He took his place.
I didn't think of the man again until several days later, when I met him in the heart of the city. He spotted me across rows of traffic, and began with great difficulty to cross to my side of the street. When I saw that I was the object of his determination, everything I'd heard about the homeless came to mind, and, to my shame, I experienced one of my not-so-fine moments. Indeed, I began to fear the worst, imagining several unworthy scenarios: he's going to ask me for money now, he's going to ask me for food or cigarettes, he's going to ask me ...
He stood in front of me for a moment only. Then, with great dignity, he removed his hat and bowed deeply. Before I could recover from the shock, he took from his pocket the gift he'd so earnestly wanted to deliver, a candy bar. An expensive, quality bar. Knowing that he must have turned in many empty bottles for this, I took his gift as if it had been a jewel. With my warmest smile I promised that I would enjoy the candy bar tremendously, and thanked him for this thoughtfulness. He studied my face as if he were committing it to memory, bowed again, then turned and walked away.
I lived in the city for several years after that, and always kept an eye out for my gentleman friend. Occasionally we would spot each other from a distance, maybe near the train station, or when crossing the river. When that happened, he always tipped his hat to me, and I always nodded and smiled in response. We never spoke to each other again. We never even walked on the same side of the street. But if he had come close enough to see my eyes, he would have been surprised to see the gratitude there; gratitude for reminding me that we can never know how much our kindness means until we give it away.
In support of random acts of kindness,