More than a decade ago, I was walking to my car in downtown Santa Cruz. Coming toward me from across the parking garage was a man, he was crying. His hair was matted to his head and his cloths hung off him awkwardly.
He was speaking Spanish asking for “help.” It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. He was sobbing openly and stumbling toward the front of the garage. I stopped and walked to him. He rambled at me in Spanish “help me, the police just woke me up from down by the river. They said I needed to go away, I am so hungry and I don’t know where to go.”
I hugged him, told him “no llores” (don’t cry) I checked my wallet for some cash but of course had none. “Let’s go get some food.” He looked at me, shock now replacing the sorrow. I’m not sure if he was more surprised I could understand Spanish and speak to him or that I was willing to help.
It was quite obvious that this half drunk, half asleep man had not really expected anyone to listen to him. We walked together back toward downtown.
I asked him what he had been doing to get hassled by the cops, he said he was just trying to find a place to sleep for the night. He had spent his last bit of change on beer but had not eaten anything substantial in days and that his stomach hurt very badly.
For some reason I can not now recall many of the restaurants on the clock tower end of Santa Cruz were closed that night. Only the Chinese food place was bustling and brightly lit. I asked him if he liked that kind of food and he nodded emphatically.
We looked at the menu in the window and after some translating, decided on a couple dishes. He thanked me profusely, realizing that I did indeed intend to get food for him. I told him to come in with me and order since it was warm inside, he stopped. Shame returned to his eyes as he looked down at himself and shook his head ‘no.’
I smiled, took his hand and we headed in. When I approached the counter. I told them I wanted to order some food for this man but that I would pay for it. The cashier shook her head “no to-go food.” To this day I don’t know if we were refused because of my companion or if there was some laps in the universe and for an hour there was no Chinese takeout, but I have my theories.
“Can we sit down then?” I asked motioning to the busy dining room, which seemed to indicate there was food on premise after all. The look on the cashier’s face was priceless but she nodded, ‘yes.’
We sat, my friend looking sheepish and embarrassed but his hunger assured him it was the right move. I told him not to worry about the other people, they didn’t matter. We got hot tea, soup and a small feast of other offerings. We talked and he told me how he had come to be as I found him that night.
He was educated, had his masters degree and back in Mexico City was once a successful architect. He came up North after his daughter had moved to San Diego but soon fell into the bottle and couldn’t get out. His family had since given up on him and he could not go back home unless he was sober.
On the verge of tears again he quietly mussed that he didn’t know how things had gotten this bad but it must be what he deserved.
I held his hand cross the table and told him the best I could with my basic spanish that it was never too late to do the right thing. It would be hard but he was worth it. He knew his family would help him if he could get sober. I smiled, I told him that no one could do it for him and in the end the choice was his. He nodded in abject acceptance, like most addicts it is not something they are unaware of.
Our meal finished and it tuned out they did have the technology on hand to allow us to take food home. I had spent more time and money on this little endeavor then I ever intended. As we walked outside I realized that I was now quite late for my evening plans.
When we parted I said “Tu te cuidas” (you take care of yourself,) Something often said in Spanish at a parting. I have always liked it better than “goodbye.” Holding his still warm food he thanked me over and over and said many flattering things about my character.
I told him none of that mattered at all if he could not do right by himself and that I hoped, he would try to get healthy. We parted and I have no idea what became of him.
As I left I wondered if his story had been true. Maybe he HAD been a horrible person, a criminal, an abuser. All these things were possible after all. But after spending more then an hour with the man I had the overwhelming impression that he was just what he appeared to be, an alcoholic in a foreign place.
I felt that it should not be my place to judge him for who he was, his choices or why he was in the position he was in.
Many people spend their whole life judging their success and the success of others by achievements and circumstance.
If we must use quantifiable data then maybe we should measure a person by looking at how much energy they put toward meeting the NEEDS of others. Versus how much effort they expend in the pursuit of their WANTS. Maybe not. A wise woman once said “I only know enough, to know I don’t know much.”
Seeing that crying man, really SEEING him, offered me the opportunity to help him. There were plenty of reasons not to. I had no idea if he was dangerous, mean, contagious and I still don’t. In the end it is not really my business, I did what I could.
Maybe it helped and maybe it didn’t. I am coming to the conclusion more and more that it is not the outcome that determines the success of an action. I hope that it is intention that transcends objective outcome and if not, then it should be. It is not about me, it is what I can do for others that matters most.