It wasn’t even a cold night. But his feet were bare, and I felt ridiculously happy to be able to do something about it.
My clothes dryer had broken. Alas, while my husband is a talented repairman, he’s also in demand as…well, as a talented repairman. Fixing my dryer, in other words, is not a top priority for either of us; there are other things to fix. I need to add, however, that it would become his top priority super-quick, if I felt so inclined to motivate him. But down the street, near a grocery store, is a place I can dry my clothes for mere quarters. Sixteen minutes for fifty cents, to be exact. Carrying 3 or 4 baskets of “lights, darks, and towels” into the laundromat, and getting the whole week’s load of clothes dried and folded at once has become a fairly efficient way of getting things done. We’ll deal with the broken dryer eventually.
One Saturday night, as early March was just beginning to make its appearance, I loaded the car with my three baskets of warm laundry, fresh from those giant dryers. Driving slowly through the parking lot, I saw a body laying still and alone on the sidewalk just outside the building! I had to take a closer look, and pulled the car to the curb. Rolling down my window, I could see that this sleeping man had taken time to spread a blanket out so he could lay on top of it. A second blanket had been pulled up over his entire body, covering his head, right down from his face to his ankles. The faded blanket moved rhythmically with the deep breaths of a weary, resting soul. A telltale bag, black plastic tied at the top, apparently held all his earthly belongings. It sat there next to the stucco pillar he was trying to hide behind, looking just as vulnerable as he did. The blanket did not cover the callused skin on his feet, and there was no sign of shoes nearby. What could be done? Then I realized I had a whole set of plush warm towels in the backseat of my car! I pulled out a bright yellow one from the pile in the basket, and walked over to the sleeping man. I hoped I wouldn’t startle him awake–I recognized for the first time that he could react unpredictably and scare me to death. Then again, I might scare him to death, too! I gently laid the soft towel across his blackened feet, covering his toes and ankles. He didn’t flinch–good!
That was all. But I’ve wondered about that man. He’s crossed my mind a hundred times since. He’s moved on in his wanderings, I suppose. Then again, I wouldn’t know. I never even saw his face. I could pass him by and not even know it. He could carry around a now-dingy yellow towel in his black garbage bag, having no idea where it came from. Caring deeply about it, or not at all. Or maybe he didn’t even take notice that something different was on his feet when he awoke hours later. It’s not like I really solved any problem that he had.
But you know what I did do? I came home and studied aspen trees. They’re connected, you know. Connected at the roots. They’re tied together underground, and can sprout up 130 feet away from the parent tree. Some root systems in aspen colonies are thousands of years old. They just keep sending up new trunks as the old ones die off. They survive forest fires because their root system is underground. Saplings flourish in open sunlight. On the surface, these trees are individual entities. But just beneath the soil, their roots are connected. They are part of the same seed.
I needed this guy, this wanderer. I needed him far more than he needed me. All I gave him was a warm, clean towel on a night that wasn’t even chilly. What he gave me was a realization that I had something—something, perhaps, called a reverence for life. It’s a compelling feeling to do more, be more, help more. I’m empowered to know I don’t need a surplus of time and money to feel that kind of love for a stranger. I just need to remember–and to ask that all of us keep reminding ourselves–what humanity really is. And to do it.