Pizza for a stranger… & a personal lesson in dignity

I often times take lunch instead of giving up that time slot for yet more meetings. I know, it’s shocking to some, but it’s part of managing my stress level while keeping balance in a fast-paced environment. Today is one of those humid but cool Ohio days so I wanted to take advantage of it by walking downtown and checking out this little deli that one of my Uber drivers told me about. What happened along the way was a lesson I did not anticipate.

Having lived in downtown Dallas for the better part of a decade, I am no stranger to the plight of the homeless. Warmer climate, larger infrastructure, more resources. I am also not a Christian, religious follower of any kind, believer in an “afterlife” or magic beings. So my belief regarding “charity” is less about those kinds of values and more about my view that these are my fellow citizens. People whom we all owe the gift of pain relief to as none of us can imagine the hardship that these folks endure on a day to day basis. It’s responsibility to those who need help. Without judgement.

In Texas, I would never shy away from buying someone a bite to eat or water to drink. If a person is asking for something, I really believe that they need it. If I have something to give, then, well, it’s given.

Today, however, I passed by a guy on the street who had a hard time speaking, but legible, who asked if I could buy him a piece of pizza at Pizza Rustica on High St. This is my neighborhood, I live just two blocks away from this place. Thus, the guy is my neighbor. And he was hungry.

What happened next though was a personal failure, but came with a valuable lesson about dignity. That and how far some elements of our culture have fallen from compassion and empathy. Once we entered together, the floor manager, I assume, came out at me and scowled an angry face, not at my guest, but me. Telling me that this guy was “bad news.” More scowls and head shakes. We went to the counter, he ordered a single slice of BBQ chicken pizza and a bottle of soda.

While I was paying, the cashier told me “you don’t have to buy this for him.” This is where I went wrong. I started to think that my guest may very well have a behavior problem. That I should do what I could to usher him out of the restaurant with his food. I ordered the food to go. Gave the receipt to my guest and encouraged him to eat outside. Then I left.

On my way, an African American gentleman patted me on the shoulder and noted: “what a good thing I had done.” On the way back to work it came to me that had I actually done a good thing, I would have stayed with my guest, inferred behavioral problem or not, explained to him that the staff at the restaurant were hostile toward him. Which is exactly the opposite of what I saw from my guest. He was polite to the point of being extremely shy. Providing him not just with a piece of pizza and a soda, but with a small slice of human dignity and belonging.

What I learned was that my old precept of simply buying someone a sandwich and a water is not enough. Nor is simply supporting a local Faith Mission. I will instead, stay with the person, make sure they get treated with respect, receive their food and are back to safety on the streets. Away from the shop managers and cashiers who have zero compassion beyond the small little circle of their own lives. I expect more from my fellow citizens. My neighbors.

I expect more from myself.

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