When we deny the poor and the vulnerable
their own human dignity and
capacity for freedom and choice,
it becomes self-denial.
It becomes a denial of both our
collective and individual dignity,
at all levels of society.
This is a true story that occurred today. The name was changed as I promised to Jerry not to divulge his real name, nor his whereabouts.
Jerry is a homeless itinerant, very hard to guess how old he is, yet after listening to his discussion ones knows he’s the kind of guy who’s seen and lived a lot. The circumstances of my meeting with him, unplanned, unexpected yet “never say never” as they say, we did meet.
The place, downtown Montreal (Canada), on St-Denis Street, at a well-known Coffee Shop (BTW they have an exquisite long double espresso with enough “crema” (Italian word for that rich and thick foam) only a professional barista can make. Ladies who ordered a latte had a little extra flower or heart toping the foam of their beverage).
Since I am not working on a regular basis, I go to the downtown rarely, unless I meet with former coworkers for a coffee or lunch, and for my hobby in taking pictures of places, buildings, these objects we care so little to notice, and last but not least I move where the action could happen and be at the right moment the right place to take the picture of the year” kind of thing!
So today was one of these days, and the St-Denis Street was a random choice, I’d say it was the first time I headed this area of my city, especially early in the morning. No shopping malls, or department stores, but many restaurants, pubs, cool places where people enjoy to hang on evenings, in other words the Montreal night life extravaganza! Not to forget the 24/7 coffee shops.
After an hour of taking various pictures, my caffeine crave was badly hitting its lowest level, I had to have some real good coffee.
I easily found the place, to get there you had to climb a couple of steps, I waited out of courtesy for the person in front of me to go in, he held the door, that is when I saw his face and clothing and felt surprised, very surprised to see an itinerant homeless person waling in such a place! We humans, are, at times our own worst enemies, we judge other people by their look, their hair, their clothes, I mean we categorize them according to certain (wrong, very wrong) social criteria and values based on the way they are dressed. When looking at Jerry (that’s his name for the sake of my paper, so guys this Jerry, Jerry these are the people who are reading this story!) I felt the shame rising to my face, as I realized how badly I misjudged the person as he was holding the door with a kind smile for me to get in easily, nodding very politely.
There was a line-up, the place was nicely designed various isles to allow people to enjoy a relaxing moments, the inevitable counters where students could spend long hours glued to their screens, headphones of their ears, you could wonder which planet they were visiting (I wished I could go back to these times of my life *Smiles*).
When Jerry’s turn came, he ordered a latte, a medium latte with an extra coffee shot. The young woman taking orders, whispered the barista that this order was a freebie.
My second cliché reaction surfaced instantly saying it was normal for “these people” to get their order for free, well hello for the humanistic and responsible citizenship I had been an advocate for so many years: I was judging a person in a situation based on appearances but also on accepted ideas (misconceptions) towards people who aren’t the same we are!
I guess the employee lacked discretion as Jerry heard her and said in a well-mannered French denoting this guy was not just well educated but had substance in his syntax and use of proper word, he expressed his disagreement about refusing charity, he also said it was a matter of human dignity to pay for something he purchased. He handed a five dollar bill, and tipped the young lady when getting his change back.
This guy felt obliged to prove to the people in the coffee shop he really earned the money and never begged for it, as we mostly think. That is when I felt how humiliating it must have been to defend himself, should he wore different clothes I’m certain nobody would have cared!
I felt my entire world shrinking to its smallest expression, such a sad scene. Nobody in the shop said a word, but how terrible can be a collective with stern faces all looking at the same person in such a screaming silence! It is sad to note that people who aren’t in conformity to our clichés seem to disturb the order of things, we tend to associate the external appearance to the so-called “standards” we are given in our days.
It was another chapter of my lessons learned not just for the day, I guess for a lifetime!
Jerry and I sat on facing separate tables, he opened the newspaper he took from the stand and after reading some of the headlines asked the manager for a pen and started solving the crossword challenge of the day. I noticed he smiled and laughed when finding the correct word. Not sure if ever someone among the present people ever cared what this guy was doing, he was training his mind and brain to keep on learning (his own way, but what an amazing way). I wonder how many of us who once done with college, keep any kind of learning pace for their own benefit.
Although Jerry needed a haircut, a shower and a change of clothing, he was shining among many others through his courage and will to keep up with his mind and self-esteem.
I engaged some conversation asking if the crossword grid of the day was an easy one, he smiled and said he usually solved it in less than 10 minutes he then said in a lower tone so I could be the only one to hear him “That is why I sit at this table I have the wall clock in front of me so I could time my challenge!” I felt wordless if wordless is enough strong to express the state of mind I was at that moment! I was, and beyond appearances in presence of a great mind, a great human person, someone who kept his own dignity with pride who did all what it takes to protect it.
I could read in his shining eyes that pride in his ability to challenge himself with mind games but also to win his challenges. It was for me time to head back home, so I thanked him for his company when asking permission to take a picture he laughed and said joking “Don’t go and sell it and make profit on my behalf!” We both laughed and I assured him I wanted the picture as a souvenir for this particular moment.
To say the truth, this guy not only made my day but showed me the most amazing lesson about human dignity! A lesson that will be hard to forget.
Until our next chat
© Michel – 2015
[i] Jacqueline Novogratz is an American entrepreneur and author. She is the founder and CEO of Acumen, a non-profit global venture capital fund whose goal is to use entrepreneurial approaches to address global poverty. Acumen has invested over $90 million of patient capital in 80 businesses that have impacted more than 125 million people in the past year. Any money returned to Acumen is reinvested in enterprises serving the poor. Currently, Acumen has offices in New York, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Accra.