Today, I had lunch with a perfect stranger.
You should know, this is not something I do regularly. Or, you know, ever.
Now, don't get me wrong... I connect easily with people. I can make conversation in grocery store lines and elevators. Little snippets and pleasantries are easy. And I can talk for England when it comes to work conversations or interviews. But to sit down and have a meal with a someone I've never met?
I don't do that.
But I did it today.
I had just sat down in the food court at the mall, with my plate of chicken, vegetables, and rice from the Chinese place. There was an elderly man sitting at the next table over. He looked well-worn and tired, his face scruffy, eyes yellow. His clothes were not in good condition and when he smiled at me, his grin was gappy. He nodded toward my plate and said, "That sure do look good!"
I smiled back and agreed. Then, surprising myself, I asked him if he'd had lunch yet. He leaned down and reached into the bag at his feet. "I got me a banana."
Surprising myself again, I told him that if he'd keep me company while I ate, I'd be happy to treat him to Chinese. He grinned his gappy grin and told me that'd be "real nice."
During the next 40 minutes, I learned that his name was Henry, he was 82 years old, and the youngest of 11 children (6 of whom are still living). Here from NY for an old friend's funeral, he was waiting for another friend to take him back to the bus station in Charlottesville. He was waiting at the mall because he didn't want to see his friend's sister, whose heart he broke back in 1961 and "...she never quite got over it and still don't like [him] much." I also learned that his great-grandparents were slaves, emancipated by President Lincoln, that his father was a cook in the Army during WWI, that he fought in Korea, and that he'd marched with Martin Luther King and he even got to shake his hand. When I told him about the essay I had published in a book to honor Dr. King, he shook my hand, too, and told me it was his privilege to know a real author.
But the privilege?
It was the best lunch I've had in a long time, with the unlikeliest of partners. Henry thanked me profusely for the food and the company and I told him it was my pleasure. I left the mall to go back to work, grateful that I'd asked him if he had eaten; grateful that all he had was a banana; and ever so grateful that I'd stepped out of my comfort zone.
This job I have is hard. There are many reasons not to like it. There have been many times I've wanted to quit. But it has made me realize that the people we see with our eyes transform when we see them with our hearts, and only when we see them with our hearts can we truly get to know them or help them. It's something I thought I knew already... but I didn't.
This job has given me a wonderful gift that I did not expect.
It has made me realize that we are, indeed, all just walking each other home.
Today I met again with my "thug." If you haven't read the post about him and you'd like to, it's right here.
I gave him the books I'd gotten for him... and he cried. This kid -- this tough, street-wise, I-don't-care-about-nothin' kid -- cried because someone did something nice and unexpected and unsolicited and unnecessary for him. For him. I have earned his trust, which, given this kid's incredibly troubled past, is no small feat. And it happened because I was finally able to see him with my heart, which didn't judge him the way my eyes did (and I'm so ashamed for that).
What I know for sure is that we are all connected, even if we have forgotten it or, for some, never knew it. We are all in this crazy, messed-up, beautiful Life together. No one is -- not a one of us -- an island, try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise.
And we are all just walking each other home.