When I walked up to the homeless man I pass on my commute every day with two cups of coffee in my shaking hands, I didn't know what to expect. With a nervous smile on my face, I said "excuse me" in the loudest voice I could muster.
At that moment, I panicked. I realized that probably the last thing a complete stranger wants to do is to spend 15 minutes of their day talking to a girl with a purple backpack and a ribbon in her hair about their life. But the smiling face that looked up at me and said, "What can I do for you?" immediately calmed my nerves.
In early November, while studying in a crowded square, I watched a woman treat a homeless man like he was absolutely nothing. The whole day, the horror of what had happened plagued me as I thought about the fact that people are people, even if they don't have a home at the moment. They have a life, they have a family, and they have feelings. So I decided that the next day I would bring a beggar a cup of hot coffee, and try to get to know them better.
I can honestly say that I'm so glad I did. Not only did Peter (that's his name), teach me about himself, but he also taught me a lesson or two about life. It wasn't just the big overarching themes, but also little details. We talked about love and his childhood and his dreams. I learned what I already knew: that he had a whole life before he got to this bridge.
Chivalry is not dead
As I went to go sit down next to him on the pavement, he stopped me. I got nervous, thinking he had changed his mind about letting me get to know him. He simply said, "No, I'll stand up. You're a lady, you're wearing a nice skirt, and you shouldn't have to get it dirty." It was a small gesture, but it was kind, and it has stayed with me ever since.
Everyone has a hometown
I learned that Peter is from the Czech Republic, about 100 miles Southeast of Prague. I know that the statement "everyone has a hometown" seems obvious, but hearing Peter talk about where he grew up and why he loves it was so personal, and every person you walk by has a story just like it.
No act of kindness is too small
When I asked Peter something that had happened that made him smile recently, his response had me grinning from ear to ear. "That's easy", he said, "definitely someone stopping with a cup of coffee and wanting to get to know me." Knowing that taking 15 minutes out of my day to do something nice for someone made a difference to them made not only my day, but my week. It taught me that even if you think an act of kindness is small, it could make all the difference.
You don't always know when you're in love
The first time he fell in love, he was 12...and he had no idea. "Being in love is wanting to spend all your time with someone, you know? You think about them all the time, and you don't feel like yourself when you're not with them. That's all love is," he told me.
Try to be more tolerant of others
One of my favorite things that Peter said to me was, "I just wish people tried a little more tolerance with one another. The truth is that no one knows what anyone else's life is like. Just be tolerant, or at least try." #preach
Don't stop dreaming
I found out that Peter dreams of visiting Greece one day. Even though it's not in the cards right now, he said that he'll make it there one day. This stuck with me, because so often we let go of our dreams because they don't seem like they could happen today. But tomorrow could change everything, so keep dreaming.
Don't make assumptions, and be kind.
When I talked to Peter, he opened up to me about what hurts him the most about people's rash assumptions. "I'm not here because I do drugs," he confided. "The only thing I'm addicted to is coffee. I've never done drugs, and I never will. People would know that if they asked, but they don't, they just assume that they know me." So be kind, and don't make assumptions about people you don't know.
When I walked up to him, I never would have guessed that he could teach me so much about life in just 15 short minutes, but he did. I almost walked away last minute, nervous that he wouldn't want to talk to me or wouldn't be open to letting a complete stranger steal his time. But I'm so glad I did.
So next time you walk by a homeless person on your commute, remember that they have a name, they have a story, and they have a life.