I just got back from a brief business trip. The trip was great, I am excited about what I learned at the conference and I'm excited to try and apply it, but now I want to write about the highlight of the trip, which didn't take place during the conference.
I was walking down Peachstreet in downtown Atlanta and Andre (he introduced himself) started walking with me and asked for a couple bucks. I said, "no" because I don't like giving money to people. I kept walking and Andre stopped to find someone else to make befriend. I thought about it as I walked away. I had six hours to get to the airport that was 20 minutes away. I decided that the next person who asked for money, I would take to lunch.
I kept walking and quickly realized that I was going to reach the subway before I found another panhandler. I wasn't particularly excited to be 6 hours early for a flight. I turned around to look for Andre. I couldn't find him. Disappointed that I wasn't able to follow through on my idea, but grateful that I wouldn't be spending the money, I turned back toward the subway.
Then our eyes met. It certainly wasn't romantic, but that brief eye contact opened the opportunity for her to ask. She wanted money. I don't like giving people money. I asked if she was hungry and she responded in the affirmative. I asked her if I could take her to lunch, and we took off across the street to what looked like a taco joint. It turned out to be more up-scale, but that was OK. We found a booth and the waitress brought us a menu. She had a Dr. Pepper and a Steak Torta (I don't really know what that is, but that is what it says on my receipt). Including a tip, it came to $15.
The best part, and the reason for the 'date', was the conversation. Her name is Rachael. She was originally from Louisiana, but came to Atlanta with her daughter. Her daughter left 2.5 years ago, taking Rachael's ID and leaving her homeless and without her ID she couldn't get a job. She has gone through some helpful agencies and acquired what she needed to get an ID, but both times it rained and ruined her paperwork. In the past she has been a mechanic and truck driver, but at one point she mentioned that panhandling really paid fairly well. The first time I asked, she said that when she returns to work, she would like to be a mechanic. The second time it came up in the conversation, she said she wanted to be an astronaut.
At one point I asked Rachael if she was happy. While she didn't always seem truthful in her responses (I found a lot of inconsistencies that I questioned), the toothless smile on her face and her excited body language confirmed to me that she was genuinely happy. I asked her why.... What makes her happy? Her response was powerful: Peace. Growing up she was sexually molested by her father, although none of her family believed that he would do that. She was married three times and each of those marriages was at least verbally abusive and it sounded like there were at times physically abusive as well. All of her marriages kept her suppressed. Her family was fairly wealthy and she even tracked some distant relatives to the Governor's office in Louisiana. She valued peace more than she valued wealth - maybe I should call it financial stability. I questioned her authenticity when she said this, but she lived what she said. Was I questioning her really thinking that peace was better than wealth? Or was I questioning abuse? Or was I questioning whether her other options were really options or merely her imagination? I don't like that I questioned her.
I asked her what the most important thing she had learned from being homeless was. Her response was respect. She talked about how she learned that it was inappropriate to interrupt and the importance of listening. I was unable to connect the dots and really understand why this was the most significant thing that she had learned, but I thought it was an interesting comment.
She also asked about my family and situation. I told her about leaving college to take a lower paying job that would better align with what I really wanted from life and would ultimately make me happier. She approved. I told her about my four young boys and she told me that I should take them fishing; it would teach them patience.
She ate half her meal and put the rest in a to-go box. I was grateful that she would also have dinner that night. I paid for the meal (I enjoyed a water while we talked and she ate) and we left. She offered to walk me to the subway, but I declined. She thanked me numerous times and gave me a big hug as we parted ways. I checked to make sure my wallet was still in my pocket and I still feel ashamed that I'm that distrustful.
I made it to the airport with five hours to spare. I got to sit and watch people, thousands of people, with enough money to fly where they wanted to, eat what they wanted to and communicate freely with those close to them. With the abundant wealth in the world, why will the highlight of Rachael's day be going to sleep in the park with a full stomach?