After I picked my daughters up from school the other day, we made a pit stop at our favorite taco truck near the car wash. As we waited in line to order, my youngest, Clare, noticed a homeless man heading in our direction.
He was white, well over six feet tall, with long, lank gray hair. His shirt was unbuttoned and his chest was red and blotchy. His pants were rolled up at the ankle, revealing the nasty-looking purple flesh of his leg. He was wearing old, beat-up loafers with no socks and emitted a somewhat malevolent vibe similar to the zombies on the "The Walking Dead."
Clare recoiled. She's particularly uncomfortable around the homeless people that live in Los Angeles, many of whom are mentally ill or suffering from substance abuse. As soon as she saw him, she wanted to abandon our taco run and go home.
I said no, figuring he'd just walk right past us. I didn't want this guy to ruin our afternoon and also hoped to teach my daughters a lesson passed down to me by my recently deceased grandmother, whose mantra was: "Be careful, but unafraid."
I thought I was being both when I noticed how he was now headed straight for us. We were his destination! What to do?
It didn't look like he was carrying any kind of weapon and I took some comfort knowing that there were other people around us, but still felt nervous not being in control of the situation. At the same time, I knew I had to do something.
"Hello, sir. Are you hungry?" I asked. "Would you like me to buy you some lunch?"
A look of relief washed over his face. "Yes, please, I'm really hungry."
"What would you like?"
He cogently gave me his order and it became obvious that he'd done this before. A large beef burrito and two beef tacos, if that was OK with me and a Coke.
I ordered his meal along with mine and the girls', then told them they could wait for me in the car. They were visibly relieved, but I could tell they didn't like leaving me there alone.
The man and I stood near each other waiting for our food. It was awkward, to say the least. I was tense while he seemed to be lost in his own world. We didn't speak. Right up until I handed the man his food.
"Thank you very much," he said.
"You're welcome," I replied, taking a step back.
Then, with a great deal of dignity, he said, "My name is Tom."
For some reason, this caught me by surprise and caused me to look into his eyes where in that still moment, I saw the person underneath what Clare was initially so frightened of. My throat tightened and I felt hot tears running down my cheeks.
So many things hit me at once. I wondered what had happened to him, what was his life like before living on the streets, where will he sleep tonight?
"My name is Shannon," I said.
"Thank you, Shannon. Goodbye." Then Tom walked away as purposefully as he'd approached.
I went back to the car, where the girls couldn't wait to ask what we were talking about.
"He told me his name is Tom," I said, and then we dug into our tacos and drove home.