I was sooo comfortable in my table seat on the commuter train. Laptop plugged in, wireless Internet on and cranking through my email. Best of all, there was no one else sitting at my table to bother me. But that was about to change.
“Next stop, Fremont station!” The train squealed to a stop. Shooom, the doors opened and the next batch of riders shuffled up the stairs to find a seat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone rustling a bunch of bags down the aisle. I thought ‘Oh great, he’s going to plop down right across from me and ruin my little paradise.’ I was looking out the window like a kid who didn’t want the teacher to call on him in class.
“Do you mind if I sit here? Do you mind?”
As if I had a choice, I said “no, not at all” and made a half-hearted attempt to pull my computer a little closer.
He said, “Thank you, ‘preciate it. ‘Preciate it, thank you.”
I noticed he had the same nervous twitch and repetitive speech pattern as Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man. I thought he may have been autistic or developmentally disabled in some way. He was 20-something, with a sunburned face and long, stringy red hair hanging out of the back of a baseball cap, like one of those Wayne’s World caps you see in costume shops. He wore a sleeveless white t-shirt, baggy pajama pants and beat-up running shoes. His “luggage” consisted of a large blue vinyl duffel bag, a yellow backpack (which he hoisted up onto the table) and a re-usable cloth grocery bag, all stuffed to the seams.
I instinctively reached for my noise-cancelling headphones. I was being courteous, but didn’t want to give the impression that I was TOO open to conversation. Well, apparently I was now a captive audience.
He said, “I’m going to Stockton. First time going to Stockton. First time. Do you know Stockton?”
I smiled politely and nodded. “Yes, I’ve been there.”
“You know any shelters?”
“Shelters?” I said.
He pointed to his duffel bag. “Yeah, shelters in Stockton. I’m homeless, homeless.”
I suddenly snapped out of my bubble. Here was some homeless kid, riding the ACE commuter train with a bunch of 40-something executives like me, just trying to get from one place to the next. To be honest, I usually walk right by homeless people, occasionally throwing a buck or two into a can.
“I don’t know Stockton that well, but I can look something up for you on the Internet.”
“Dang! You got Internet right there! Wow!!” His face lit up with an enthusiastic smile. “You got a printer too?”
I chuckled. “No, but I’ll write down some addresses for you.”
“That would be great, great. ‘Preciate it, thank you. Thank you, ‘preciate it.”
I pulled up a Google map of two homeless shelters near the train station. As I drew a little map for him, he asked, “How much is bus fare in Stockton? Bus fare?”
I clicked to find a fare schedule. “Let’s see… if you’re 18 years old it’s $1.50. Are you over 18?”
“I’m 20 years old. 20… and I’m disabled. Cheaper price for disabled.”
I looked down the list. “Let’s see… seniors and disabled… here it is…75 cents.”
He smiled, “Cool, 75 cents. Cool.”
I was starting to get drawn into his story. What did it take to keep going every day? I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast with my own 19 year old son, who’s going to college in Santa Barbara. My son doesn’t have to worry about his next meal, or scraping together 75 cents for bus fare.
I asked him why he was on this train, and he said the bus fare from Stockton to LA was cheaper than San Jose to LA. “I’m going to visit my mom in LA. She’s diabetic. Diabetic. She’s 54 and she’s diabetic.” I didn’t ask anymore on the topic, as he looked troubled about it.
He pulled out an insulated coffee mug with a train station logo on the side. He proudly proclaimed, “The lady filled it up with hot chocolate… and I got that for FREE!”
He pulled out a big plastic jar of apple sauce, opened the lid, and chugged a big mouthful. “Ah, that’s good stuff. Good stuff.”
It occurred to me that I hadn’t properly introduced myself. I reached out to shake his hand. “My name’s David, what’s yours?”
He said, “My name’s Pebbles.”
“Pebbles?” I thought it was an odd name for a guy, but I went with it.
He said, “Yeah, like on the Flintstones. You know the Flintstones?”
“Yes, I’m old enough to know the Flintstones.”
“Yeah, my nickname is Pebbles. Pebbles. Because she is independent… and gets in trouble all the time!” He laughed out loud, and then shook his head slowly. “I just keep going. Keep going.”
I closed up my laptop and we talked about a few things, like the windmills in the Altamont hills, which led to talking about the famous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in the 60s. He surprised me when he said, “Yeah Hell’s Angels stabbed somebody. Stabbed somebody.”
I said, “You’re not old enough to remember the Rolling Stones.”
He rolled his eyes sarcastically and said “I KNOW history!”
“Are you saying I’m old?”
He paused for a second. “You said it, not me. Not me.”
The train was rolling downhill faster now, and I told him my station was coming up. He silently looked out the window for a few minutes, and then back at me. His voice dropped as he said, “You know… lots of people don’t want… don’t want to be by me. They say GET AWAY from me!” He made a shooing gesture with his hands. “But you…”
His face became very serious. “You… treat me like a human being.”
I really didn’t know what to say after that.
“Next stop Tracy station!” I gathered up my stuff, and reached into my wallet for my last $20 bill. This kid did not once ask me for money. But he did say ‘maybe someone will help me out,’ as if planting a hopeful seed that would sprout later.
I wanted to be the one to help him out this time. I said, “This’ll help you get to LA. When you get there, tell your mother hello for me… and tell her how impressed I am with your survival skills.”
“Thank you.‘Preciate it. ‘Preciate it. Thank you.”
He grinned that big grin. “Bye David!”
As I walked downstairs to get off the train, another passenger tapped me on the shoulder and said “Hey, I saw what you did back there. Not everyone would have stayed and talked to him like that.”
I said, “You know… he’s a lot sharper than he looks. And he just keeps going. Gotta respect that.”
I’ve been thinking about Pebbles the last few days. I don’t know if he found a good shelter in Stockton. I don’t know if he’s on his way to LA to see his mother. But one thing I do know. I’ll look at homeless people differently now. Sometimes God sends us reminders that we are not alone… that we’re put on this planet for each other. I may have been an angel to Pebbles that day, but he was a messenger to me too. He reminded me that no matter how tough life is, you just keep going. You just… keep… going.
The next time you see someone who’s homeless, I encourage you to stop, spare a few dollars, and then if you can…spare a few minutes to talk to them. Restoring their self-respect may be the greatest gift you can give.
‘Preciate it. Thank you.
NOTE: Here is a foodbank that several of my colleagues and I volunteered to help last Christmas. It’s one of the really good ones: http://www.accfb.org/
Photo Credit: Justin Bugsy Sailor from http://www.hometowninvasion.com/photo/oklahoma/osiris-d3-2003