Nameless Faces

Nameless Faces

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Nameless Faces

Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.

~William James

I was nineteen years old the first time I saw my own true character. I wish I could say I was proud of what I saw, but that would be a lie. At least I can say that my true character changed that day. My overall outlook on people managed to take a 180-degree turn in less than ten minutes. Who would have thought that the first person to change the way I viewed humanity would be a complete stranger?

For about a year, my voyage to and from work each day included a subway ride followed by a ten-minute walk through the heart of downtown Toronto. As with most large cities, the homeless population of Toronto often congregated on downtown corners, asking pedestrians for their spare change. Like most busy citizens, I learned to ignore the nameless faces who begged me for money each day. When it came to homeless beggars, my limited life experience had led me to one assumption — you are on the streets because you choose to be, probably due to drugs or alcohol.

I remember noting how particularly cold the weather had been that season. It was mid-December, and the temperature was a chilly –20 degrees Celsius. I walked with my head down, desperately wishing that my office was closer to the subway stop. I passed the usual mobs of homeless beggars, ignored all of them, and continued walking. As I crossed the intersection of Queen and Yonge streets, I saw him sitting against a building, wrapped in several layers of thin cloth, holding a white cup in front of him. I heard his shaky, pathetic voice target me as I sped past him.

“Spare some change?” he asked. “I would really appreciate it.”

I didn’t even bother looking up at his nameless face. I briefly pictured him walking into the closest liquor store and stocking up on whiskey with whatever money he managed to conjure up that day. Or, maybe he needed another hit of cocaine. Clearly, if he had ever been married, his wife would have literally kicked him to the curb when he couldn’t get his habit under control. See, like most teenagers, it took me only moments to pass judgment on his life.

“I have no money on me,” I said quickly.

Looking back now, I feel as though fate had set out that day to teach me a lesson. And it succeeded. Just a few feet past him, I managed to find the only ice patch on the sidewalk. As I slipped, I tried to position myself so the impact would occur on my hip and thigh, but unfortunately my aim was about as good as my judgment of character, and I managed to land square on my right knee. The pain seared through me as I lay on the ground for several moments wondering if I had fractured my kneecap. As I tried to come to grips with the notion of actually getting up, I heard a familiar, gruff voice only inches above me.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

I knew immediately that this was the man I had just rushed past. Even in pain, I still took a quick moment to sniff for the faintest smell of alcohol on his breath. There was none. Before my eyes began to well up with tears, I saw the smooth, sympathetic look in his eyes. He wasn’t drunk or high.

I held his hand as I struggled to get to my feet. He held my arm as I hobbled to the nearby bus stop and quickly sat on the bench. The pain in my leg told me that I had definitely done more than simply bruised my knee. I needed an X-ray.

“My name is Mike,” he said, as I tried to find a comfortable position on the bench. “You really shouldn’t try walking on that leg. That was quite a fall you took, and you really need to get it checked by a doctor,” he said with deep concern.

“This bus goes past the hospital,” I said quickly, pointing to the bus sign above me.

Mike paused, and a look of sudden realization crossed his face. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his small white cup. He dumped the meager amount of change into the palm of his hand and counted it. He held only money out toward me, and after a few confusing moments I looked up at him in sheer bewilderment.

“I know you don’t have any change on you,” he said, “but I can always give you this. I think there’s just enough here for you to take the bus.”

I was overwhelmed with guilt as I remembered the lie I had told him only a few short minutes earlier. I turned away from his offering hand and reached for my purse. I pulled out my wallet and dumped my own change into the palm of my hand. I felt Mike’s eyes on me as I counted through the money that I had told him didn’t even exist. I had at least ten dollars worth of change in my hand. I counted out enough money for me to take the bus to the hospital and then turned to Mike to offer him the rest. He held out his cup as I placed the handful of change in it. I wished I had some bills to give him, but I hadn’t been to the bank yet that day.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. It was by far the most sincere “thank-you” I had ever heard in my life. Just behind him, I heard the bus approaching. He held out his hand to help me stand up.

“Thank you,” I said as the bus slowed down in front of me. “You take care of yourself,” I said sheepishly. Both of us knew that five minutes earlier I couldn’t have cared less what happened to him.

“I will,” he said. “And you take care of that leg.”

“I will.”

I hobbed onto the bus and took a seat by the window. I watched Mike as he clung to his cup of change, cherishing it as if it were the first gift he had ever received. Despite his gratitude, I didn’t feel absolved for my actions. A half-cup of change seemed too small a gift for the man who gave a name to every nameless face I’ve ever seen.

~Alexandera Simone

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