I smelled him before I saw him. The stench of urine was so strong that it burned my eyes and nose even before I looked up. For a moment, I was not sure what I was looking at. Then, I realized it was a homeless man, in a sunflower yellow shirt, black leather jacket – in the middle of a humid summer day – with wet curly hair plastered on his face, eating ice cream. That instant something raw tore through me. To me, a homeless man, who could buy anything with the little money he had, chose to buy ice cream. It was not a question in my mind. It was a period. A statement. He chose to buy ice cream.
To me ice cream speaks of hot summer days, and slightly breezy summer nights. A swirly ice-cream cone is the epitome of childhood and even as an adult, I feel giddy when I buy this sacred soft-serve. When we were children, ice cream was something that we craved when passing by the ice cream truck, looking at our parents with begging, no, pleading eyes. Otherwise running down the street to catch the all too familiar melody. Ice cream is for pleasant, relaxing times – at least that is how I see it. For some reason, when I got older, movies have portrayed sad, heartbroken women with a tub of ice cream, and I never understood that until now. Perhaps the women eating ice cream saw it as comfort food – remembering the good summer days, childhood or some other happy memories attached to this practice. Maybe, somewhere in the subterranean of my sub consciousness that stuck with me until this homeless man crossed my path today. Upon seeing him, enjoying this moment, made me want to cry. He could have used the money for water, coffee, food, cigarettes and even booze that we too often associate with when we see reeking homeless people.
It had just poured. The summer rain came down fast and hard taking everyone by surprise – as is common for summer rain to do. You can still see his hair wet and flat around his face with no care in the world. He held a spoon in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. He was shaking and mumbling, his head contorted to one direction entirely too far. He undoubtedly bought the soft-serve from the ice cream truck parked fifty yards away, just outside my job – located by the beach. There are lines of people, every day standing there, waiting for the man in the truck to hand them the cold goodness. The kids and counselors from our summer camp line up almost daily and even our IT guy had ice cream for lunch the other day. There is something uncomplicated and nostalgic about ice cream. Until today, I never saw a homeless person to buy from him.
You would think I had been watching this poor soul for some time as I write this; but no, what I saw merely was a glimpse before I almost bumped into him. I was lost in my own thoughts, with my head down, but the smell woke me up followed by the sight of the ice cream. I am now sitting at work, sad and fascinated how little we care about others, and how often we judge those that are almost invisible to us.
The homeless man with an ice cream cone. Never seen it until now, nor did I think I would have such a strong reaction to the sight. This pang of loneliness and sorrow became a revelation. Thinking about it, I may be judging what and who I do not know or understand. Maybe this man is content. It could be that ice cream makes him experience joy, possibly it reminds him of the good days of summer, when he was a young cheery boy running around. Perhaps it does not remind him of anything and he really just wanted to relish in the ice cream. Whatever his thought process was, I shall never know, yet I sit here dissecting it; trying to find meaning in it. Trying to understand and empathize with what I think this human feels. I am only assuming these things, in some way, even projecting my own subliminal feelings of solitude and gloom that very instant. Even after over two hours, I sit here wondering why he chose ice cream. Why he was homeless. Was he happy, was he sad. How did his life become this way.
This man caught me off-guard and made me ponder on how we choose to spend our money, time and what makes us happy. How something as simple as a vanilla soft-serve cone, can make someone enjoy life. When I pass by homeless people I get annoyed that they are homeless. Maybe I am naïve in thinking they had other options. They could have been depressed and too stubborn to ask someone for help. Whatever the case, their stench rising up the streets is the only thing that makes them visible in this world.
I associate homeless people with drugs and alcohol issues. Rarely stopping to think they might have lost their house in a fire, their family abandoned them or died or they simply gave up on life. I never thought a homeless person would want to take pleasure in something we take for granted – what children sometimes take for granted – the pure joy of eating ice cream. I am sure some psychologist somewhere has a good explanation about this connection. That sugar, ice cream and whatever else can be associated with memories, emotions and feelings, but I am just a passer-by, an observer of this transitory moment in time.
This nameless human does not even know what impact he had on me that very second he crossed my path. We want to belong somewhere, anywhere, desperate for a human connection and unknowingly this homeless man eating his ice cream that I almost bumped into, he raised an emotion out of me that I did not know existed.