Although it was late on a chilly December night in San Francisco, the Castro neighborhood still hummed with activity. Chatty groups moved between clubs and smokers huddled together outside bar entrances. A seventy-something nudist wearing only a beatific smile whirled down the sidewalk, admiring his reflection in the store windows. By contrast, the serious young black man approaching me as I walked down 18th Street locked my gaze with gentle urgency.
Of medium height, with dark eyes and a wiry build, he was speaking as we passed each other, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I stopped and faced him. He looked at me with surprise and hesitated. “You threw me,” he said. “I didn’t expect you to turn around.” I smiled and nodded.
“What time is it?” he asked. “Can you tell me what time it is? I don’t like to leave my girlfriend for very long. We take turns going out, trying to find food, or maybe some clothing, or other things we need.” The words tumbled out rapidly. “We do have some money—thirty-six dollars—but we’re saving it to buy a cell phone.” I smiled again and touched his arm. “It’s 11:45. Relax, take a breath.” I put a hand out. “My name’s Chris. What’s yours?”
He exhaled. “Syod. My name is Syod. I’m homeless right now. Some people offer to buy us food—they don’t like to give money. I understand. That’s okay.” As he spoke, I fished in my front pocket for a wad of bills—an evening’s worth of change from the bar I had just left. I grabbed it all and quietly put it into his hand.
He looked at me with surprise. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Can you spare it? I don’t want to create any hardship.” I nodded. “Yes. It’s for you. It’s all good.” We looked at each other for a moment, smiling. Then, I opened my arms and he came in for a strong hug. “Thank you,” he said, and, taking a step back, turned to continue on his way down the sidewalk. But then he paused and looked at me again. “You stopped and listened,” he said, shaking his head. “You have no idea how much that means.”
And I thought to myself, I do now.