An elderly gentleman and I, walking from opposite directions, arrived at the door of Denny’s at precisely the same moment. I could see through the window that the place was fairly crowded. My job interview was just down the street, and with more than an hour to kill, my wife and I had planned on a leisurely breakfast.
I reached for the door, intending to hold it open for the old man. “No, let me get it for you,” he insisted in a gravelly voice that I could barely understand. He wore a dirty jeans jacket and sported a long white Santa Claus beard. I could see that his mouth no longer had much in the way of teeth. It was obvious that he was homeless.
My wife and I entered the lobby of the restaurant and the old guy followed behind us. Immediately, a server flew out from behind the counter and began shouting at him. “Get out! Get out! I mean it! Get out of here right now or I’ll call the cops!”
“What? Why are you gonna call the cops? What did I do?” protested the man. The server was so upset that it seemed she was about to physically push the guy out the door. Hearing the ruckus, a manager walked up behind the server and began yelling “Just go!”
The old man turned around and left. My wife and I were aghast.
As we passed the table nearest the door on the way to our own booth, a breakfasting gentleman snickered, casually offering “Maybe they didn’t like his after shave?”
After we sat down, my wife suggested that the man may have been in the restaurant earlier in the morning, perhaps bothering patrons. It’s possible, I responded, but more than likely he’s been around many times before and is well known to the staff. The main thing, I said, is that the guy obviously has no money. The restaurant, I added, has no use for anyone who is not a paying a customer. We agreed to buy a to-go breakfast and take it out to him after we ate.
We sat at a window that looked out on one of the city’s primary thoroughfares. As we sipped our tea and waited for breakfast to arrive, we had a good view of quite a few people hanging out on the sidewalk, leaning against buildings and occupying the doorways of businesses that had not yet opened for the day. It was easy to see that homelessness is a big problem here.
In Greek, the word eureka is an exclamation meaning “I have found it!,” most notably attributed to the ancient scholar Archimedes, who legend tells us ran down the street screaming the word upon making one of his mathematical discoveries. But for many dwelling in the city that goes by so inspiring a name, the only thing found is a profound sense of hopelessness, coupled with agonizing efforts to merely subsist from one day to the next.
Although Eureka is located within the borders of California, it seems far more oriented to the Pacific Northwest. Located near the northwest corner of California, about two hours’ drive from the Oregon border, the climate of Eureka reminded us more of Portland or Seattle than it did of Los Angeles or even of our own hometown, about 300 miles south. Although it wasn’t raining, the sky was overcast and a chilly breeze blew through the streets. It was at least twenty-five degrees cooler than the weather we had left at home yesterday.
Many of the homeless we encountered were bundled up in layers. I could not help but wonder how they ended up stuck outdoors, where they slept, what their stories are. The one encouraging sign was that we saw no police harassing them or chasing them away.
So here I am in my jacket and tie, ready to face a panel interview for a middle management position. As my wife and I ate breakfast, we discussed our finances for the month of June. What was left of my unemployment checks is now gone. We need to begin digging into our meager savings immediately. I agreed to visit the food bank two towns over to see what they can give us to stretch our funds a little longer. We marked our calendars for a local food distribution scheduled for the end of June.
For now, at least, we still have money. After being unemployed for eight months, we are not broke yet. And if we’re frugal, we know we can stretch what we have for another six months or more, through Christmas and even into 2015.
And we counted our blessings. After all, we don’t have to dress in layers to stand in the cold wind and be chased out of any place where there is a chance of scoring a bite to eat. Everything really is relative. It is difficult for us to feel sorry for ourselves when the suffering of others is manifest right before us.
We paid our bill and prepared to order a to-go breakfast, hoping that a bite of hot food might cheer up he that is turned away from every door, from any hope of succor. We looked up and down the street for any sign of the bearded old man in the dirty jeans jacket, but he was nowhere to be found.
… thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother. But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. –Deut. 15:7-8 (KJV)