It rained pretty hard here in San Francisco this week. I’d waited until Friday to do my laundry, and I was in a hurry to get a lot of stuff done (<- multitasker). There's a laundry place across the street on the corner, and i figured I didn't really need the umbrella I carried in my hand as I crossed the street. With each step I recalculated the unexpected severity of the "mild" rain, the amount of time it would take to turn around and get my umbrella vs. the amount of time to reach the doorway of the laundry mat.
As I approached the entrance, I could see through the wet hair falling in my face, a black homeless man standing in the corner, smoking a cigarette. In San Francisco, we have agreed not to smoke inside businesses and besides, it was wet and having my now just washed clothes smell like smoke made me grimmace. How rude. I put my wet clothes into a couple of dryers and went home to do email or something.
Half an hour later, I walked back to the laundry place, half hoping that one cute girl would still be there and half hoping that homeless guy wasn’t there. I didn’t see him as I approached the laundry. I did notice that the place actually had a door, which was now closed. I pushed it open and found myself standing alone in the laundry room with this crumpled, mumbling homeless guy. Thankfully he wasn’t smoking.
I pulled my now toasty clothes out of the dryers into the brand new (and therefore functioning) roller cart. As I pushed it towards the folding tables, I noticed that all of them were soaking wet. I’d have to fold on top of the washing machines, but one look on the tops of any public laundry place will have you think twice about putting your clothes down. I decided to fold from the cart, a most unpreferred way to do this.
As I was folding, I noticed the homeless guy looking at me. He was gesturing at me an mumbling something I tried to ignore. I just wanted to get out of there. Badly. I tried not to rush pulling things out of the cart, lest they hit the floor. WAY gross.
“Good to SEE you!” said the homeless guy. I looked up at him at his face. One eye was drooped shut and the other was bloodshot like a bad case of impetigo. Or cheep vodka. His lower lip had a rather large sore on it. I tried not to think about how that had happened.
“Yeah, I’ll bet it’s good for you to see ANYTHING, dude,” I thought. And was struck instantly with sadness and compassion for this guy, who was totally soaking wet and clearly uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t be? I could see in my peripheral vision he was holding out his hand and mumbling some question, which i interpreted as The Ask.
As I looked down while i folded my laundry, I remembered Sunday School teachers telling me about Jesus showing up in disguise as a homeless person, or someone in prison. “Even the least of these…” rang into my mind like a kind of angelic air horn. I felt my heart soften, and my defense mechanisms easing.
“Good to SEE you!” he said again. I looked into his eye and he was looking right back at me. “It’s good to see you, too,” I said after a moment. I’d started to muster it up, y’know, “generate” feeling good about seeing this homeless guy in my neighborhood. I began to feel it as soon as the words crossed my lips and I marveled for a minute at feeling good about seeing this guy.
“I can fold laundry, too” he said. I actually prefer to pay homeless guys a buck for washing my windshield, but I draw the line at those hands touching anything of mine.
“That’s OK, I prefer to fold my own,” I replied. “Actually, he didn’t ask to fold your laundry, he just said he could…” I thought.
“Good to SEE you!”
I looked up from my cart of warm clean, soft cotton into his bloodshot eye. This time he smiled, like he’d just lead me to a new insight.
“Good to see you, too,” I said. To make a long story less long, we had a conversation that was a lot of me asking him to repeat himself because i didn’t understand what he was saying. What I DID understand included:
“Good to SEE you!” about four more times.
“I delivered papers – the Valley News. You know it?”
A lot of mumbling. I’m slightly deaf and it was a noisy laundromat.
“I just turned 5”
“the people forget about love” (pointing out to my new neighborhood)
“Blessed Assurance,” he said with a confident smile and a point at me. “Blessed Assurance?” I asked. Is that what he’d just said? “Blessed Assurance” he said looking and pointing right at me.
Now, I’m prone to take things as “signs”. I often find myself thinking, ‘y’know, that right there, dude, is a SIGN.” Like I’ll find a random playing card on the ground (three times in a row I randomly found Aces of spades…) or a song on the radio will have a phrase in it that really speaks to me in the moment. But I’ll confess – I really did have a moment where i wondered if I was seeing an actual man, or if this was some kind of divine messenger telling me something I needed to hear. “Blessed Assurance…”
We talked about his coming from Dallas four years ago, to being trapped in San Francisco, with no way to get back. His clothes looked cold wet and heavy and he was making ME uncomfortable as I folded my clean, warm cotton towels.
“Hey, why don’t you put your shirts in the dryer,” I said excitedly, perhaps feeling my idea would atone for the abundance I was quickly reminded I enjoyed. “Here,” I said, reaching into my pocket for quarters.
“I would, but I don’t have a dime!” he said with a sincerity that suggested it was actually true. I pulled out all the change in my pockets which at this point included three quarters and two dimes.
“I’m just trying to get something to eat,” he slurred with a practiced turn and took my money.
I reached back into my pile of warm, clean cotton and pulled out the next item to fold – the orange fleece pullover sweater I’ve had for years. I wore it frequently at my construction consulting job, and a number of the rooftop views I’ve enjoyed in San Francisco wearing that fleece flashed through my mind in a nostalgic rush. I loved my job, but it was definitely time to change. I loved the way that sweater felt when it was clean and fresh out of the dryer and it always kept me warm.
“Do you want some dry clothes, man?” I said. I started to reach for the fleece and realized I was about to give away one of my favorite and most comfortable pieces of clothing. But something just came over me and i pulled the sweater out. I had flash of hoping he’d decline the offer as I held it out to him. I pulled out one of my work tee’s as if to sweeten the deal or something.
A young latte-skinned woman came in to do her laundry. As she came in, he turned to her and said “should I take this off?” She looked at me, and saw that I was looking at her as if to say “would you mind if he did?”. She looked at him, and saw the clothes in his hand. I looked away, trying not to put her on the spot and letting her make her own decision about it. I didn’t hear what she said.
“This thing is like a scab,” the man said has he pulled at the collar of his damp sweatshirt. “It’s like a part of my skin.”
I could tell he was being half-humorous, and yet it wasn’t clear whether it was just exaggeration.
“Would you help me take it off?”
I was like “Jesus, what are you doing? Didn’t I just give you a bunch of clothes? Now you want me to take your shirts off for you?” I struggled for the words. He looked at her. I thought, “well, she is closer to you, both of you being in the same aisle of the laundromat…” And then, “man… can’t you just take off your own shirt?”
“Would you help me take it off?” he looked at her. She looked at me and said “I’d prefer if he did it.”
“yeah, I know what you mean,” I thought. I looked down and started to muster up to go around the ban
k of washing machines to help him out of his soaking wet scab clothes. I looked up and saw that she was wearing gloves and had started pulling the collar over his head. They were well underway. I thought, “she’s gonna earn her gold stars in Sunday School this week!” or something to that effect. I was grateful, let’s just say that.
I finished putting the last of my now folded stuff into my big green sea bag. he was lean and muscular. and half naked. “Should I put this on now?” he asked us both.
“Yeah, I think that’s something you should do right now,” I said. She smiled as she wrangled her laundry.
I replayed the tape in my head of the unique way he said “Nice to SEE you!” I said it to myself a few times out loud, but just under my breath as I crossed the street. It had stopped raining and I felt a rush of gratitude for another deeply meaningful experience with a homeless person. It made me want to write a post and tell everyone to not be afraid to speak to homeless people. Sometimes the things they’ll say will change you.