I GAVE a homeless man some blueberries tonight. A punnett of them. They were two for £3 at Sainsburys and I only got through one packet at work this week. But that’s not really why I gave them away.
I see this man most nights of the week, sitting in the same place near the corner of the street with his menacing brown dog and a navy blue blanket, only one block away from my house.
I’m in the habit of shuffling past, head down, silently hoping he won’t ask me for money or see that I have an iPhone and follow me home. Sometimes I walk past after doing the grocery shopping, carrying bags full to the brim with deliciousness and ready to whip up a little Jamie Oliver number (presumably in only 15 minutes according to the new book).
Often, I go past wishing I had walked the long way home on the other side of the road so I didn’t have to see him sitting there, alone and with nothing. Seeing that kind of thing can put you off your dinner you know.
Tonight walking up the street, breathing clouds of smoke in the frosty winter air, wishing I could have afforded Ben Howard tickets from the scalper at the tube and silently cursing my holiday budget, I braced myself for the customary keep-calm-and-shuffle-on maneuver. He was there of course, the homeless man, same as always.
But something happened. Another man was running down the street towards us. Maybe he was drunk, maybe he was mean, maybe this was his idea of Christmas cheer, but as he ran past he yelled with almost menacing glee: “You’re not getting any of my money. You’re crazy to think you’ll get a penny!”
The homeless man stared. Roused. Got really angry.
“You’re not homeless mate.”
He said. “You’re not homeless. You’re rich! You have a home so you’re RICH!”
You have a home. So you’re rich.
This version of richness had nothing to do with tickets to the Ben Howard gig, or how on earth he was going to afford to travel to four countries in the next two months AND attend all of the Christmas parties. Being rich was simple. And I had it.
I kept walking but when I turned the corner I couldn’t go further. I stopped. I cried. I cursed myself for having spare blueberries, for wanting to walk away, and for having an iPhone.
I thought back to a recent trip to New York where a friend of mine approached a homeless woman and offered her pizza. Sure I though about the nonsensical shouting and refusal that ensued, but mostly I thought about the kindness in this act and the example that was set.
So I turned around and got the blueberries from my bag. I approached the man with fear and caution, wondering what to do if the dog attacked (poke the eyes or grab the throat?).
I held the berries out. He stared. He reached. I said “they are nice ones, I hope you enjoy them.” I walked away and heard the peel of opening plastic. And all the way home, I cried.
Because even with all of the blueberries in Sainsburys, I can’t make that man rich.