I went to the Wawa with my husband to pick up a quart of milk. As we parked the car, we noticed a young man passed out and lying in front of the store.
"That guy's not doing too well," my husband said.
I agreed and we went about our business, not at all compelled to do or say anything further.
Leaving with the milk, I again noticed the man in front of the store. This time, there was a police SUV pulled up at an angle, lights flashing in the parking lot. And this time, I really saw the man. He was in such an awkward position. It looked as if his upper body wouldn't hold him up anymore, and it just fell over at a 90-degree angle, leaving his lower body just where he had left it. A police officer was rummaging in the guy's pockets. I assumed he was looking for drugs or ID or both.
When the cop pulled him somewhat into a sitting position, I saw that the young man was alive and awake. I noticed his eyes for the first time. They were beautiful, soft, like there was a kind soul behind them. But they scared me. They were looking out at nothing. He was so out of it, he wasn't responding at all.
Buckling up in the car, I could see his eyes better. I could see right through them, but they couldn't see me. A shiver went down my spine.
The man was filthy, like he hadn't had a bath in a month. His hair was greasy. His face was so dirty I almost couldn't tell the color of his skin. His jeans looked like he'd worn them for a year and never once washed them. They fit him well. At some point long ago, he must have tried them on, looked in a mirror, and decided they looked good on him. Maybe he bought them nearby.
Beyond the filth, and beyond the eyes, he looked like a very nice-looking young man in his early 20s. When we pulled up, we hadn't really noticed him. Just a bum passed out. But now, I saw almost a boy.
As we pulled away from the parking lot, I wondered out loud where the cop would take him. I figured he was taking him to jail. We left with the mutual understanding that it was none of our business.
The next night, I couldn't stop thinking about that guy -- his beautiful eyes and his good looks. It made me sad to think of him in jail. Of course, he was probably on something illegal, but he wasn't hurting anyone but himself. What good will jail do him? How was he the next morning? Did they let him go? Where? And why was he on the sidewalk in front of the Wawa, right there and right then for me to cross his path? And why didn't I care when I first saw him? For all we knew, he could have been dead.
In my youth, he would have disgusted me. I would have called him a low-life and been appalled at the waste. But now, in my older years, I've seen more, experienced more. I know what things can happen to people. I have more compassion.
I know I can't go out there and save the world, that there are people without homes, with mental illness and addiction, all over the country. But who was this guy? Whose best buddy was he in high school? Whose son is he? Is he a brother, a father, a boyfriend? Does anyone know where he is or why he didn't call? Does anyone care?
So I thought I'd march myself down to the police station in the morning. I couldn't tell my husband. He'd think I was crazy and tell me not to get involved. I actually didn't want to get involved. I have no tools to help this man. I didn't even know if the police would share any information with me whatsoever. I only wanted to know where they took him, what may have happened to him, and if there was any chance he could have received any help.
Because, now, he's crossed my path. Now, I need to know.
The next morning I visited the station. I explained why I was there and what I wanted. I felt like an idiot. Who was I to ask? What right did I have to any information? The clerk was very polite. I'm sure she thought it odd that I would stop in to inquire.
She really couldn't give me any specific information. There are privacy laws. She did tell me, to my relief, that it was unlikely that he was taken to jail, that more likely the officer took him to the hospital. Once treated, she said, he would have been released and left on his own.
She said there is help available for people like him, but he has to ask for it. I hope he asks. I went to the police station looking for comfort. I found none. Perhaps he will find some.
So now I know -- at least as much as I'm entitled to know, which is basically nothing. As we celebrate the birth of our nation, I find myself grateful -- grateful that I am free from a dictator and grateful that I am free from addiction. I hope this man finds his way. I hope that one day he too will go for a quart of milk. I hope that when he does, I'll know that he has once again crossed my path, only this time, he'll be free, and I will want to know.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
A version of this essay was previously published by Newsworks.