The old man showed up one day on my street, out of the blue. Hunched, a wispy beard reaching down his chin, he carefully laid out his wares on the footpath. A few bottles, a big box, a smaller box, arranged in symmetry to form a neat square around him.
At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing. Was he selling these random items? There was a tin can as well. Was he a beggar? Nothing about him said that. Yes, he was wearing what seemed like old, hand-me-down clothes. He had a jacket over them, similar to street folks that have to fend against the wind and cold. And he was squatting on the space, in the manner of one who has claimed this as his temporary parking spot, not having anywhere else to go.
Still, I was puzzled. He looked busy, which most homeless people don’t look like. Indeed, he was thoroughly occupied with setting up his space. Rushed office workers and college students walked past him, throwing a lazy glance without slowing down. He didn’t notice any of them. Head down, he went about his business. Things were arranged just so, orderly and tidy.
He didn’t seem like a homeless bum. But then what was he doing on the footpath? I could not make sense. As I passed him, I snuck a look at the tin can and saw that it contained some notes. Okay, so he was a beggar. I walked on, nonchalant on the outside, making a vow to drop some money when I had a chance.
The next morning, I saw him unpacking the things from the previous night to again set up his display for the day. I started to approach him, money in my fist. At that instant, he looked up, right at me. I was startled and slowed a bit. And then he broke into a wide, toothy grin, like he recognized me, like we were old friends and he was so pleased to see me. I couldn’t help but grin back. After all, it is not often that I get such an open, inviting greeting.
He reached out his hand, eagerly, wishing me a good morning, with the greatest delight etched on his wrinkled face. Abashed, I still managed to reach out and we shook hands. I was, again, taken aback; I had not been expecting to shake hands with him. I was only planning to offer some aid, in the form of loose change, keeping a sanitized distance with no physical contact or any other interaction. Instead, here I was, feeling a soft hand clasping mine with friendliness. His face searched mine, lighting up in recognition, of what, I don’t know. When I finally dropped the money in his tin can, he thanked me, with the same beaming smile.
The following day, I gave him a bag carrying a sweatshirt and a woolen hat, since it was starting to get cold. He accepted the bag and patted me on the back by way of saying thanks. He didn’t even look inside, already expressing what felt like a sincere gratitude for whatever I had chosen to give him. That night, he was sleeping when I walked past, on my way home from work. He was wearing the sweatshirt. I felt a tingle of pleasure on seeing this; I was glad it was keeping him warm.
I look forward to seeing this old man every morning. He looks happy, despite his circumstances suggesting he should be anything but. I have seen people with far more things than him with the sourest expressions sitting on their faces and the meanest words coming out of their mouths. On days, I am a grumpy louse, complaining about inconsequential things. We are supposedly the ones that are doing well in life, the achievers, leaders, go-getters. However, I will venture to say that this old man is so far ahead of all of us. I get the feeling that he is content in his present, seeing it for everything that it is and feeling the joy of every ordinary moment. That makes him the richest, most accomplished man on earth.