I veered off I-90 East just outside Cleveland, onto an exit ramp, and slowed my grey Chevy to a stop underneath a stoplight hanging from a paint-chipped pole and dangling in the March wind. To my right suffered a gas station in disrepair with two pumps encased by three or four salvage-yard ready vehicles and pavement waiting for weeds to grow through its cracks and signal an end to this long, cold, miserable winter. A two-story office building long since abandoned by everyone and everything except the Cleveland Browns helmet sticker in the front, lower-level window stood across the street. Behind the vacant storefront, rotted a cemetery whose ghosts had even fled long ago. Who knows, maybe one of the craters in the narrow, one-way road looming across from me had sucked the spirits of this deserted neck of urban plight away. On my left, a rusted 10-foot iron fence protected pedestrians from having any wild notions that they should jump from the bridge to the highway below.
I sat and waited for the light to change from one Christmas color to the other. Five seconds elapsed. Then ten. Maybe from boredom or a stroke of fate, I happened to twist my neck and look backwards, over my left shoulder, to a spot in the fractured sidewalk where experience suggested I would see a homeless man begging for sustenance – whether food, money, booze or all three.
Instead, I saw two smiles, a McDonald’s bag, and a personal gesture of kindness now etched into my memory.
Two men – one tall, black, and dressed in work clothes and one shorter, white, and most likely homeless – embraced on the sidewalk. In his right hand, the homeless man held a partially folded cardboard sign no bigger than 8.5×11. I assumed it carried a plea for whatever he needed that day. His left arm, which he had to reach up to drape around the shoulder of the taller man, clutched the McDonald’s bag – a lumpy and partially crumpled mix of Golden Arches and red lettering. Against the hazy, wintry afternoon, I saw a smile beam from the taller man’s face as he wrapped his right arm around the other’s waist.
The two men separated and crossed the street directly behind my car. I contorted my head and neck to watch as they walked. The smaller man, a soiled blend of tangled beard, dirt-coated jacket, and blue pants held together by exhausted threads, waved at the other who bounced to the van he parked in a wayward corner of the gas station. I don’t know what words they said, but from their collective smiles I presume that the homeless man thanked the stranger for his generosity. Somewhere – maybe in a home or maybe actually on the street – he would spend the rest of that day with a stomach satisfied by the greasy comfort of a McDonald’s cheeseburger and French fries. And he would do this because a stranger had the compassion to step outside his own way to deliver this small treasure.
The stoplight, still sashaying above me, switched to green and I motored forward, smacking an oversized pothole with my front tires along the way. As I finished my drive home, I considered the beauty of what I just witnessed: two strangers, one a shivering, starving man and the other a stranger blessed with a caring heart. By bringing the homeless man lunch, this person reminded me that good people perform acts of kindness every day. The challenge is for us to keep our eyes and our hearts open because we never know when we might experience such an act firsthand.
Sometimes, all that’s needed to make a difference is a bag of McDonald’s, a heart that cares, an arm that hugs, and a smile that welcomes.
Thank you, Mr. Stranger, for inspiring my week.