My Sunday morning walks to church have become time to treasure. Armed with hot coffee and comfortable shoes, I walk briskly through downtown Minneapolis, past the ducks in the park, and 30 minutes later, I settle into my pew. Today, I set out on my walk actively wondering what I would ponder along the way.
A young homeless man disrupted my flow. “Excuse me, can I ask you something?”
He looked at me, his words a clouded huff lingering in the cold. Baggy jeans, leather jacket, slicked back hair. The lit remnant of a smoked out cigarette dangled from his fingers, held away from his body.
I stopped walking to study him. He didn’t look like a typical bum. Too young. Face too clean. Eyes too clear.
“So, I was trying to buy coffee for a dollar,” he explained. “And they wouldn’t let me have it for a dollar, but all I have is a dollar, so can you give me a dollar seventy-five so I can have some coffee?”
I raised my eyebrows. Well now. This was different. Did he expect me to take pity on him because he was in need of coffee? He shrugged and tried to look pitiful.
Craving coffee was something to which I could relate. Plus, I was curious. So I flashed my Starbucks card and kept walking. “Walk with me to Starbucks and I’ll buy you a coffee.”
“They don’t like me there,” he warned, but he jogged to join me at my side.
“So you tried to buy coffee for a dollar?” I asked once we’d fallen in lock step. “Tell me about this.”
“Yeah, they wouldn’t sell it to me. I think it’s crazy that you can’t get coffee for a dollar.”
“Why do you think you should have coffee for a dollar, if that’s not the price?” I asked.
He stopped walking in the middle of the intersection and threw his hands out, unsure what to make of the question. “Are you serious? I don’t know if I should laugh or try to answer.”
I was serious. It wasn’t that I wanted to teach him a lesson in economics, I was honestly curious to know what he thought. And I was trying to figure out how a bright eyed kid like him had resorted to begging in the cold. “Well, Starbucks has to pay its employees,” I said. “They have to pay rent on that space here in downtown, which is expensive. They have to buy the coffee. Why would they sell it to you for a dollar?”
He was exasperated, but continued to walk again, probably thinking he’d stick out my questions in exchange for the coffee I’d promised.
“I dunno,” he said finally. “I guess I thought I was special.”
This made me laugh. “You’re special alright. But if everybody thought that way, Starbucks wouldn’t be there.”
We approached the cafe. “Ditch the cigarette,” I said. He took one final drag and threw it out.
I ordered a grande soy latte. “And he’ll have …” I looked at him expectantly. “Oh uh, I don’t know what to order. I’ll have some large, like, yeah, a really large coffee that’s hot.” Then he asked me, mockingly, about the soy milk, “What’s that? Is that some healthy shit?”
The woman at the counter recognized him. “You know him?” I asked. She nodded. I said, “He tried to get you to sell him some coffee for a dollar, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, apologizing. “And I can’t do that. If I did, my register wouldn’t tally up right and I’d get in trouble.”
I told her, “The next time something like that happens, tell the person that you have to get paid too.”
Meanwhile, a barista handed my new friend a venti brew. He took it over to the condiments table and popped off the lid. He poured the remainder of the sugar canister’s contents into it — about a quarter inch of sugar. Then he thrust the sugar jar at the cashier. “Can you refill this?” She did, and he emptied a few more tablespoons into his cup. Then, he decided that the coffee was too hot to drink. So he asked for a cup of ice. The barista graciously handed him a cup of ice.
He then plunked huge ice cubes into his cup, splashing coffee all over. “Careful, you’ll spill it,” I said. He assured me, “Don’t worry, I dumped some out.”
I got my latte and started to head out of the cafe. “Do you have plans?” I asked him.
He didn’t. So I said, “Walk with me. Then we can talk.”
We got to know each other — or rather, I peppered him with questions about his life and circumstances. He told me that lives in a shelter that costs him $30 per month. He begs for a living, but really dreams of being lead singer in his own band. He’s good at freestyle rapping, which he taught himself to do. He quit his previous band because the lyrics they asked him to sing were too “emo” — too down on life. He wants to “sing about happy shit.” He’s white, with clear skin.
He’s got family in Kalamazoo, Mich., and has been homeless off and on for several years. He is 21. High school diploma, but no college. He reads lots of books and is pretty curious about the world. Chooses homelessness because being in a band doesn’t pay enough. I detected some family trouble, but didn’t press him on it.
It struck me that he is blessed with a strong vocabulary and intelligent mind, but no formal training with which to wield either.
For instance, he started talking about existential philosophy, though he didn’t know that’s what it was. “Like, how do I know I exist? How do we know anything is real? Things are only real because I am here. Everything is our imagination,” he said, excited to share his ideas.
“You’re too smart to be living in a homeless shelter,” I said. “You’re talking philosophy now! And it doesn’t matter how real you perceive the world to be, reality exists. This stuff is fun to talk about but it won’t feed you. Can you get full by imagining food?”
He laughed and nodded. He rapped for me some lyrics on the fly, “Now that I’m grown, Heading into the unknown, I don’t know where it’s goin'” . . .It was a good conversation. He said he’d gotten good at manipulating people into buying him stuff — this was his way of making a living. He paused briefly to admire our surroundings — Loring Park, with a peaceful lake and ducks pecking at the frost-bitten grass. “I didn’t know this was here,” he said of the park.
I noticed that he wore no gloves. His knuckles and fingers were thick and dry — he had a big scab on one knuckle, probably from skin that burst in the cold. Or from a punch recently thrown.
We got closer to my destination. I pointed at my church’s steeple. “Look,” I said. “I’m going to that church. I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to sucker you into coming with me. But you’re welcome to.”
“You’re trying to manipulate me into coming to church!” he said, adding, “I’m just kidding. Yeah, I’m exploring about God, but I haven’t been to a church.”
We approached the entrance, “What’s your name?” I asked him. He said, “Zachary, or Zack.”
When we got in and sat down, he looked at me guiltily, and made a confession. “So, like, I, like, had enough money. I didn’t need money for coffee. It’s just that I’ve gotten good at asking people for things, and like, they give it to me.”
I stared at him blankly because I didn’t get his point. I didn’t realize that he was confessing something.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“So, you bought me coffee but I had enough money to buy myself a coffee.” He reached his hand in his pocket and pulled out some bills.
“I knew you had enough money for a coffee,” I said, rejecting his effort to pay me back.
“How’d you know!?”
I told him that I could tell from looking at him, and that most people who beg have money in their pockets. I did not tell him that I’d interviewed homeless people in Chicago once and learned a lot of the tricks. Or that I had seen immediately that he was clean shaven, which meant he couldn’t be that hard up.
“We’re cool,” I said. “It was a fair trade. I bought you the coffee so that you would talk to me.”
He slouched back against the pew. Then he perked up again. He wanted to tell me about his most recent fistfight. As he told his story, he got super animated and louder. I had to stop him when he got to this point in the story: “So he’s like, let’s go smoke a blunt! And I’m like, she ain’t go no business with you nigga!”
The white haired lady in the pew in front of us began to turn around.
“Shhhh!” I tugged on his sleeve. “Listen, you’re in a church, you’re going to alarm people. Tell me the story later, k?”
He goes, “Ok,” and sits back. “I’m trying to figure out if these people are real or not,” he said. I told him that every large gathering has real people and fake people, and that God only cares about our own hearts. But still, I got his point. I had the same amount of skepticism when I first started attending, around his age.
“Well,” he said, gesturing at the filling pews, organ and vaulted ceiling, “all this only exists because of me.”
“No,” I whispered, “I can assure you, I exist without you.”
“Prove it,” he said.
Then church began. He watched the baptism, mesmerized. “I’ve never seen one of these before,” he said.
The sermon covered a lot of ideas, but one of those ideas was the fallacy of people who too often say, “prove it.” The coincidence was too much! I pointed at him and snickered, and he laughed too.
We ate church brunch together in the basement, which I paid for because he had emptied out his pockets into the offering plate.
I noticed in the buffet line that his clothes were dirty. His white t-shirt was brown mostly, and it had some black graffiti design on it. I saw the tops of his under drawers, because his pants sat so low, and the drawers said, “BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH” all the way around the waist band.
He walked with a gangsta style, sauntering really more than walking. “Look at you Mr. Confident,” I said, bending my knees and swinging my shoulders in imitation.
“I’m so confused,” he said. “You see me looking confident like this. I walk like this because really, I’m confused. I don’t know what to do here.”
“Why are you confused?”
“Like any day, I can choose to be good or bad. But, I don’t know how to make the choices. If I choose one, then I can’t do another. Like, last night, I was bad. But then this morning, I’m good. It’s this roller coaster.”
I didn’t really have much to offer in response. I wondered what he had done the night before, but for once, I didn’t ask.
Every decision is a rejection of infinite other things, I told him. “Like today, you chose to come here with me. You could’ve done infinite other things, but you picked this.”
He teased back, “You’re blowing my mind.”
We ate with a family of five. The three little girls watched him intently, one with her fork suspended, as Zack scoffed down two plates of food within minutes.
And then we attended a Bible study class on life transition. My church had five classes today, and Zack picked out which class he wanted to attend based on a list that I’d given him.
The class was filled mostly with well-dressed women over age 50. We each talked about our life transitions, which included the birth of grandchildren, switching jobs and moving locations. The class was led by a female pastor who’d authored a book on hope.
At one point while the author spoke, Zack whipped out a switch blade knife and began cleaning out his finger nails.
Still, the ladies, and few gentlemen, treated Zack with respect, answering his questions — “What’s does continuity mean?” he asked, — and looking to him eagerly to contribute. These people are real.
At the end of the class, I gave him some papers the church’s Dignity Center, which helps homeless people get on their feet. “You need to go to community college, so you can learn how to organize your ideas,” I said. He gave me a marker and said, “I don’t remember anything unless it’s on my arm.”
So I took the marker and carefully wrote the church phone number on his arm, along with, “9 a.m. Monday.”
“But what if it comes off?” I said.
“It won’t,” he said. “It would only come off if I washed it.”
“Good bye, my friend. I’ll be here next week. But if I don’t see you . . .” I trailed off.
We shook hands.
I hope Zack chooses good. I wonder if I’ll see him next week.