Denny's DwellerIt’s Friday Feb. 15, 2013. NBA All-Star weekend has just begun. Although I am not participating in any of the NBA activities, friends new and old join me in the benefits of having a home in the city that’s hosting this year’s All-Star events.
One All-Star night in the books, I sit amongst friends at the “usually late, but always right on time” Denny’s diner.
We share the dining area with an older couple I think only I noticed coming through the door and two adult women that we all greeted and engaged in conversation on the way to our table. We sit, laugh and joke - carefree - as we receive our drinks and put in our food orders. Breakfast food for everyone, lots of it. Humorous and lighthearted, we recap the night’s highs and lows.
After a while, the waitress emerges, serving us countless plates of food. We rummage through the food, searching for a comforting amount to consume. As we eat and laugh, I periodically glance towards the front door, involuntarily. I keep having the thought “something is coming through at some point tonight. I’ll be prepared for whatever it is.” We’d been eating for a half hour when I notice what appears to be a homeless, middle-aged African American male. He enters the restaurant through that same front door. No one acknowledges or greets him. He seats himself. This isn't the employees fault - they're short staff and all in the back. Nonetheless, it plays in to the collective blue feeling that I experience soon after.
The man is wearing faded black jeans and a navy blue zipper hoodie. His hair is awfully dusty and unkept and his lips, cracked and dry, suggesting either an inability to keep up his personal hygiene or a loss of desire to. I try to force myself to refocus on the conversation at our table. I can’t help but continually glance in the man's direction. I notice the man speaking to himself, in depth, with a very frustrated and conflicted look on his face. As he converses with himself, he rubbed his head fiercely, almost as if the questions he was asking himself were too much and he couldn't find the answers. I can't keep my eyes from the man - it’s intrigue at first but soon after, continually seeing his inner turmoil, I start to feel it. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for us.
We finish eating, few of us completely done with our food. We get up to leave as I take my fork and indulge in one last coupling of French toast, even though I'm no longer hungry. My friends have gone ahead to the register to pay the bill. I’m a long ways behind. They now stand at the register and wait as I scan the table one final time to check if we’ve left anything. Reemerging from my search, I turn and head to rejoin the group. I now walk toward the homeless man I’ve watched on and off for the past hour. I make eye contact for what I plan to be the last time. It isn’t. The man speaks - I listen. It’s all really hard to follow.
What I make out is that he has been trying to get back to his family. To do so, he is using what looks like a truck stop atlas to navigate his way. The atlas lays open on the table next to a small plate that holds the remains of a dismembered cookie. From the looks of things, it’s either all he could afford or all Denny’s would give him. Even worse, I glance down at the map and see Alabama circled and this man is clearly on foot. It’s becoming clear that for him, this Denny’s stop is only a resting point in a long, harsh journey. The man continues. He shifts the conversation from the search for his family to the economy and how “there must be a way to get the economy back on track…” My friends wait in the entrance, looking on as I stand in front of the man. I’m not breaking eye contact with him. I'm trying to let him know that someone cares.
It’s been five minutes now. With each minute I stood and listened, I unknowingly moved close enough to get a first hand account of what homeless smells like. The smell compels me even further to stay another sentence... and another... to listen. To support. He speaks quickly, non-linear, but his pronunciation is flawless. I continue to search for clues, trying to make out what exactly it is he needs or is looking for. I can’t figure it out from his words but I stay anyway. Often, he circles back to something he said previously. Periodically I threw in a “is there anything I can do” but the longer he speaks, the more confused I become. He barely breaks stride in his explanation to acknowledge what I say. My friends continue to patiently look on. The more I listen, the more distant we become.
After 10 minutes of trying to decode the man’s words, I’m coming to the very disheartening realization that there isn’t much I can do for the man at this point, in this place and under these circumstances. Something about this man’s circumstance, mixed with his essence, is creating a very painful area in my heart. I tell the man I have to go and ask a final time if there was something he needed. Again, he doesn't break stride in his conversation, almost as if I hadn’t said anything at all. It’s starting to seem that he’s not communicating his needs to me clearly because, to him, I am barely here at all. I touch his shoulder to let him know I’m human. I say goodbye and good luck. He gives me a quick look and head nod and continued on with his conversation. It was as if I was a friend leaving from the restaurant and he was in the middle of saying something very important to the person that sat across from him. As real and convincing as his body language is, there’s no one there.
I walk off. I look back to see him rub his head fiercely again and look my way. I can’t help but get the feeling that his frustration was that he just couldn’t get across to me what he wanted to. Emotion so strong in me that I feel nausea. This part of life hurts. It breaks my heart. Even in that dark moment, however, I find light.
As I leave Denny’s into the parking lot and into the car, I look back at the illuminated Denny’s sign that I can see in my side mirrors. With a smirk on my face and a tear I hide from my friends, I think, “How ironic? It’s here that I find truth. It’s here that I find regret... and yet, progress. It’s here at Denny’s at 2:30am that I find life reassuring me that no matter what superficial successes befall me, I can’t outrun the condition of humanity. Money won’t hide me or those I love from the harshness of this world. The circumstances of my fellow men and women are reality, and we can’t buy out of reality.
In my reflection of the “Denny’s Dweller”, it has added to my desire, ammunition and determination to fight. Fight against greed, fight against hate, fight for a better tomorrow for everyone. I fight for HUMAN WELFARE.