Mark and Peter seemed like nice guys. Nice homeless guys, like many others who are talented and smart, but have fallen on hard times.
I met these men by the dock in Old Town Alexandria. Right next to the Torpedo factory—the one Peter worked at for 30 years. It was a cool spring night when I passed by their picnic bench and said hello. The younger of the two men hopped up to greet me with a request to spare a dollar, which I did in exchange for a cigarette. I don’t usually smoke but learned years ago that sharing a smoke is one of the quickest ways to connect with strangers. No judgment, just smoking.
I joined them at their ‘station’ as they shared cold microwavable spaghetti, which they ate with ‘chopsticks’ made of a pen and toothbrush. They then gave the sauce-covered container to my dog who gladly licked the it clean. As I sat there with these native Virginians, I learned of their troubles with women, alcohol and finding a job. They explained in detail the task of securing a safe corner to sleep.
Mark, the young brown-haired man with a John 3:16 shirt asked if I would pray with them before I left. Reluctantly, I agreed to extend my hands and bowed my head. I asked him to make it quick, which he did. As I walked away, an instinctual feeling to check my belongings rose from within. Quickly I patted my pockets. Yep, cell phone and credit cards were still with me. Immediately scolded myself: “How dare you think that just because they are homeless they would steal.” I continued walking toward town and back to my comfortable life.
Shortly after strolling by a jewelry store, I looked down to admire my… ring, which was no longer on my left hand middle finger. An overwhelming sense of loss rushed over me as I realized that the “hold hands and pray” was a trick. Somehow, they managed to steal the ring and I was stupid enough to let them. I immediately marched back down to the park to confront my new acquaintances. Their unwavering claim was that they were not thieves and they did not have my ring. But they did offer to look for it and I offered to look the other way so that they could ‘find it’.
However, against the advice of bystanders, I did not call the police. Instead, I went back to the guest room of my friend’s house and searched through my bags. The ring was nowhere to be found. As I drove back to the scene of the crime, I called the police and told them the tale of the naive mountain girl who trusted the city- living bums. I hung-up with the police and answered a call from my Alexandria host. “It was on the bathroom floor!” she exclaimed. She was holding the ring in her hand. Luckily, the police had not been dispatched and I was able to cancel the request for them to meet me in the portside park. I, on the other hand, continued down the road toward the docks to find the ones to whom I owed an apology.
Inside the parking garage across the street from the picnic bench where we first met I saw the two men huddled together. Surrendering to my guilt and shame I extended my palms and said, “I am so sorry. I was wrong. The ring is found.” Joyfully they reminded me that they did not take it. They told me how they had kept looking for it and were hoping I would find it. This time I believed them. Did they express anger? No. Did they write me off as judgmental? No. They asked if I would pray with them again, for safety. We held hands and they said a prayer of gratitude that I had returned, that had found my ring and that we were all safe. I tossed in that I was grateful they were not in jail, which brought us all to laughter.
After all this grace these homeless men offered me, I felt the least I could do was offer them something in return. It was too late to buy food. I had no cash, but I did have two bottles of my most favorite beer. The Duck Rabbit Milk Stout, the sweetest irony of the night. For the Duck-Rabbit symbol comes from the 1950s philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote about illusions and perspective. He explained that you can see the world and report on it as you see it; OR you can look further to see that there is more. For the Duck-Rabbit image, if you look at it upright, it is a duck and if you shift your perspective (or turn the image on its side) it is a rabbit. Now, the trick is that once you see it as both, you can never go back. Your illusion that the world is a certain way dissolves and your perspective is forever changed. May we be open to letting go of our illusions and be grateful for those who shift our perspective.