It was January 2016 when I found myself in Berkeley, California, by way of New Orleans. Little did I know in Northern California it rains damn near the whole month of January. I had been in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and was expecting sunshine, but to my disappointment or surprise, I was soon educated about the weather in the sunny state of California.
When I arrived, the weather was in the mid-forties. I met a woman named Valentine who took the time to show me where the resources were. She was in her forties, had jet black hair, a muscular build, and was the mother of three children. She would not tell any of her family that she was living on the streets.
On one miserable rainy Monday, we were walking down Shattuck Avenue when we came across an older man. He obviously had some severe mental health issues, which I could tell because he was walking down the sidewalk wearing just socks, blue jeans, and a t-shirt, all of which were soaking wet. It was late in the afternoon and the temperatures were dropping fast. Then, out of nowhere, Valentine did something that I had never seen before.
She just walked up to this man and with no hesitation, took her coat off and wrapped it around him. As I stood there in disbelief, she put her foot up beside his to see if her shoes would possibly fit him. In my mind I thought, “thank god, the shoes are too small.”
I thought this girl has lost her mind. As she turned and walked back to me, I looked at her very sternly and said “what the Hell do you think you’re doing?! Now you’re going to freeze your ass off and probably catch a cold, and don’t expect me to give you my coat.” She looked at me very sincerely and said, as she pointed to him, “You see that man? He doesn’t have the ability to get another coat or shoes. I do.”
[She] didn’t do these things expecting anything in return.
BOOM. That blew my mind. I didn’t know what to say or what to think. This man was not a friend, he certainly wasn’t family, he was just a stranger on the streets. This was her only coat she was giving away, the only coat she had to stay warm and dry.
The following day, breakfast and lunch passed and we still had nothing to eat. Valentine saw a Mexican food restaurant with a chip and salsa bar. She had eaten there before and knew they offered unlimited chips and salsa. Of course you were supposed to buy a meal with it, but we didn’t have the money for that. As a matter of fact when we pulled our money together web only had $0.70.
Valentine was standing in line still shuffling through her purse to find the additional change needed to order of chips and salsa for one. Her turn in line came and she was standing in front of the cashier looking for more change. It was a long line, and the cashier was not willing to come up with the additional $0.30 needed. Valentine had to step to the side. I sat there watching in disbelief. Finally, the girl behind her put two quarters on the counter in order to get her out of the way. I thought to myself “this is one of the reasons why I never ask anyone for anything.”
But Valentine was able to give the stranger her coat and then the following day not get angry because no one would help us by donating $0.50 to get something to eat. As these people were looking down their noses at her, the visions of her giving that man her coat continued to flash through my mind. I didn’t know what to say.
To my surprise, when Valentine walked back to me, she never said a negative word. She simply asked, what type of salsa do you like with your chips?
Wow, is this what is meant by the biblical phrase, “treat thy neighbor as thyself”? Obviously Valentine didn’t do these things expecting anything in return. But I’m quite certain she felt much better about herself after she did them. I will be so bold as to say this is the definition of “true love.”
I never saw Valentine again after that brief encounter, but her actions are something I will remember forever.
Timothy Busby is a homeless writer who lives in Berkeley. He writes from his past five years of experiences while living on the streets from New Orleans to Berkeley, and many cities in between.