by Jack Bragen

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y wife dropped me off at Starbucks while she and her friend went shopping at a nearby store. My usual order was the largest iced coffee that they have, and then I go back for one or two refills. By the time I finish sipping the second refill, my wife has usually returned to pick me up.
I sat on their patio smoking cigarettes, and I noticed that at the table next to mine, an apparently homeless man had sat down. Soon it was time for my refill, and I got up and checked my pockets for the change to pay for the refill, and realized that I would have to use my debit card to get my coffee; I had no change or bills. Usually, there is one or two dollars lurking in my wallet, and several coins in my pocket, but today, nothing.
I stood up and went to go get the refill, but not before catching a disapproving look from a proper-looking woman in her seventies, who seemed to think I shouldn’t sit near a homeless man. I don’t know what she thought, but I am not here for all people’s approval.
Upon returning to the patio with my refill, I saw that the homeless man was now sitting at the table I had been using, and another couple sat at the adjacent table. He was apologetic and offered to get up, and I said that there was plenty of room at the table for both of us to sit.
He proceeded to eat his dinner, a chicken sandwich with slurpee (which I knew were affordable from 7-Eleven); and I proceeded to smoke cigarettes and drink more iced coffee. At some point, I made a remark that was intended to make conversation, and the homeless man next to me seized on the cue. We ended up having a conversation that lasted over an hour until he went on his way, on his bicycle, saying that he had things to take care of where he lived.
By then, I had caught more disapproving looks, some of them from Starbucks employees, but no one made any remarks to me about it. Our conversation was mostly small talk, and included the fact that times had certainly changed. He had worked hard for years until his health had gotten worse and he could no longer perform at his job.
He had applied for Social Security, and apparently they had told him that he couldn’t qualify for benefits solely on the basis of depression. He compared this to the success at getting benefits of other people he knew who were addicted to illegal drugs — who often qualify for benefits due to the damage that the drugs have done to them. He talked a little bit about the struggle to survive.
We joked together about how smoking cigarettes is becoming illegal everywhere; but soon, marijuana is going to be legal because of the fact that the governor smokes it. He said his parents had both died of lung cancer, and that they both went through long and horrible deaths; so he could understand how many people would want to end smoking.

Art by Christa Occhiogrosso
Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

He said that no one should be forced to breathe tobacco smoke, but that sometimes a cigarette was the only pleasure that a person could look forward to in life. He described to me the difficulty in getting butts out of ashtrays while avoiding getting in trouble for this.
He finally got up the nerve to ask for a cigarette, and that’s when I gave one to him. I probably should have just offered him the smoke to begin with, but that isn’t how I do things. I mentioned to him that young kids are always trying to get cigarettes from me, and boy, do they get mad when I turn down their request.
This man must have been in his early sixties and had probably been homeless for many years. Yet I noticed that his glasses and his bicycle were kept in good condition. He kept his hair combed, and he spoke clearly and reasonably. He was not a crazy person.
Sure, he had some anger concerning his plight, but who wouldn’t? It seems that fate had dealt him a few too many blows, and this is where he had ended up.
He probably tolerated me partly because I wasn’t coming off as superior or preachy, and I wasn’t a do-gooder trying to rescue him. At no point did he ask me for spare change. And I didn’t offer any.
My wife and her friend returned from shopping and caught a glimpse of this man before he left. While I drove away from Starbucks, my wife said that most people wouldn’t talk to a homeless person and that it was a nice thing. I replied that I write for a homeless newspaper and that if I shunned homeless people, it would make me a hypocrite.