The Stranger We All Know

There is a man who sits outside the deli near my office. Most days he’s there when I arrive in the morning, and there when I go home at the end of the day. Sometimes I’ll go days at a time without seeing him and then he’ll appear again as though he hasn’t been away. He appears to be in his 50s or maybe early 60s. Aside from an injured leg he seems to be in good health.

What I notice most of all is his smile. He has a warm smile and always says kind things to the people who walk by. Sometimes he’ll ask for money to buy a sandwich but most days he only says a simple “good morning sweetheart”, or “have a great day today sir”. Occasionally there are days he says nothing at all.

When I walk by at lunch time he is typically engaged in a lively conversation with a handful of men and women in business suits. They talk as though they have known each other for years. Maybe they have. The suits ask him how he’s doing. They chat about the weather, his grand kids, sports, and any other topic that seems to pop into mind. I’ve seen people bring him food or a coffee and there is a small gaggle of ladies that drop off clean clothing for him when the seasons change. Usually though, people simply stop to hug him close and chat with him.

I’ve often wondered why he sits out there all day. Even in the snow or rain. Hottest days of summer and many of the coldest winter days too. After a few years of watching him interact with the suits, I finally decided to sit down and ask him more about his life. He smiled at me and immediately opened up.

He told me about his family – mostly his grand kids. They kept him busy but he was happy for the time he was able to spend with them. He wished he could see them more often but was thankful for the time they did get together. He told me he had a bum leg but he was connected with a doctor and a therapist who were doing what they could to help him out. He was hoping to avoid surgery.

He also told me he was looking for a place to live but he was having trouble proving his identity. Turns out getting a new social security card and photo ID is pretty difficult when you don’t have a place of employment or a primary residence… and it’s hard to get a primary residence when you don’t have a social security or photo ID. He sighed and said he was working with a great agency but there is so much red tape in the government. It makes things take a long time. He said he knew things would work out and thanked me for the conversation. He told me to have a wonderful day.

Now when I see him his smile is a bit warmer and he will even wave if I’m in the middle of a conversation so as not to interrupt. It’s been years since he’s asked me for money. Instead we share pleasantries as I pass by. When he’s gone for a few days I find myself worrying if he’s okay. A man I don’t even know.

You know the curious thing? I’m not the only one. I  see people walking by staring at the empty spot on the bench where he normally sits. The mood is quieter. His presence brings a more cheerful mood. Lighter, happier conversations. It affects even those people whom I’ve never seen interact with him. He just has this infectious warmth. It really is quite amazing to watch.

I don’t know his whole story but its clear there is a great sadness he doesn’t talk about. How can a man who has seen such sadness be such a bright light for dozens of strangers who cross his path every day? Does he realize how they worry about him when he’s gone? I wish he could see that. I wish he could see their smiles as they turn the corner after chatting with him. I wish I could be more like this man. More grateful, more thankful, and more loving. The type of person who people can’t wait to see every morning. The kind of person who takes down those defensive walls and allows for our shared humanity to shine through.

I’ll work on that.

With Love, Mia

Nov. 28: Today I am thankful for people who remind me of what a great world this really is.




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