As I offered him my hand, the look on his dirty, disheveled face was part surprise, part delight.
“My name’s Christian, what’s yours?” I asked.
“V-v-v-Victor” he replied.
I didn’t know at this stage if his stuttering was because of nerves or a speech impediment.
“I’m delighted to meet you Victor. So, my friend, what’s your story?”
I’d been observing Victor and life around him, for about twenty minutes.
I’d been having breakfast in the same Starbucks on Grant Street during a visit to San Francisco.
There’s nothing special about this particular Starbucks. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s a pretty cramped affair and seating is at a premium. Not that it stopped me getting a spot on one of the stools in the front window of the venue.
There, as I devoured my two pots of oatmeal (I’m a growing boy) and supped on a peppermint tea, I engaged in a spot of people watching.
That particular morning wasn’t such a comfortable experience though.
Victor sat himself down on the pavement opposite the entrance to Starbucks. Obviously a deliberate ploy, one born, I’m sure, from utter necessity.
He set the two plastic bags carrying his entire worldly belongings down at the foot of an advertising stand to his left.
Then, cross legged, he sat holding up a small polystyrene cup to passers by for donations.
He didn’t appeal. And at times his head fell into his hands not so much in despair, more in exhaustion.
During my time observing Victor, I reflected on how the thin layer of glass and few feet between us might as well be the size of a the Milky Way from his perspective.
There was I, consuming a warm meal in an overpriced coffee joint and there was Victor, without a pot to piss in nor, it appears, a friend in the world.
Many people passed Victor by during those twenty minutes. Many people looked straight through or past him when they left Starbucks.
No one acknowledged his existence.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not sitting in judgment. Quite the contrary in fact, I’m making an observation – there’s a massive difference between the two.
For a start, I’d be nothing short of a hypocrite if I were to judge, because I used to ignore those begging on the streets too.
I had a suspicion about them – a belief created not from my own experience but from the opinions of others.
I had no idea if those opinions were based on any sound evidence either, I simply adopted them because I gave the source of the opinion credibility in my life – even though, in most cases, I’d not given a single thought to how credible those sources really were on the topic.
I believed street beggars were con men. I believed they’d spend whatever money they could extract from an unsuspecting public on whatever drug was of their choosing to escape the reality of the life they’d created.
I’m not so wet behind the ears to think that’s not the MO for some people living on the streets, but it doesn’t matter to me anymore if it is.
I don’t look at life through the same lens.
As I sat there that morning, I saw no separation between Victor and I. The idea seemed preposterous to me. Any “difference” was purely aesthetic and circumstantial, shaped by a different level of consciousness expressing itself into our respective lives.
It wasn’t the lack of money going into Victor’s polystyrene cup that disturbed me. It’s not my place to suggest what people should or shouldn’t do with their money.
No, what disturbed me most was the lack of acknowledgement that he was even there.
As if he were invisible.
As if he didn’t exist.
As if he wasn’t worthy.
Victor told me his story. He’d come to California to see family and get a new start. He’d got himself an interview for a job in San Francisco only the week before, but it hadn’t come off. He couldn’t pay rent, hadn’t been able to for a while… so he lived on the streets.
Victor was a decorator by trade. He paints houses inside and out. But he’d fell on hard times and couldn’t break himself out of the downward spiral.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“I-I-I-I’m going back home to Washington”, he blurted out. “Most of my family are there and I’ve got a better chance of work there. S-s-s-San Fransisco is not a good place to be homeless or looking for w-w-work”, he informed me.
“How are you going to get to Washington, Victor?”
“The g-g-g-greyhound. I just need f-f-fifteen dollars for the fare”.
“Have you eaten this morning?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Come with me”.
I went back into Starbucks and sat with Victor as he ate his breakfast.
“How much do you really need Victor?” I asked.
“Just the f-f-fifteen to get me back”.
“What about food?”
“I’ll be f-f-fine now. The soup kitchen has s-s-s-shut here but I know where to get food by the bus s-s-s-station”.
I gave Victor more than what he needed – but not a lot more. I offered, he wouldn’t take it.
As we left the coffee shop we embraced. The guy never stopped expressing his gratitude.
No question the food and money helped. And yet perhaps the most valuable of all things to Victor that morning was my acknowledgment of him, that I was interested in him and his story, that in just one simple act of recognition he was reintroduced, at some level, to his own worthiness.
I’m not suggesting my encounter with Victor changed his life for the better forever, and I’m not suggesting I’m any more a good “samaritan” than the next person. What I am suggesting is, in those moments, perhaps my greatest gift to Victor was my recognition that the gap between us was nothing more than a highly convincing illusion.
And in that, Victor’s greatest gift to me was the reminder.
Christian Simpson is the UK’s leading coach and mentor to business owners and entrepreneurs. For COMPLIMENTARY ACCESS to tried, tested and proven entrepreneurial success strategies, click here