Like most days, I was running from place-to-place and space-to-space. At my local coffee shop, I’m known as the lady with the luggage as I carry all of my business necessities in a rolling carry-on bag. What began as a tool to help me “lighten the load” when I was pregnant years ago has turned into my traveling office. I may hear hushed giggles when I roll in, but my back thanks me. And this day in particular, so did another man.
I found myself on another side of town with the need for a soy chai latte fix and some computer time. Unsure where my local Starbucks would be, I was thrilled to stumble upon one in the direction of my next meeting. Most days, I find myself and my traveling office always on the move. With more work to do than a day will provide hours for, I usually don’t come up for breath unless it’s to order my needed caffeine dose.
As I rolled into the coffee shop, I did what every coffee shop visitor does first… I scanned the space to find an outlet. My computer needed a boost as well, so a little nook on the far side of the space promised to be the perfect home for a few hours of good work. I felt destined for success that late afternoon, especially since the shop was nearly empty. I’d become accustomed to the loud white noise and rich smells of coffee beans as a means to help me focus, so the fact that only one other person was seated at a distant table, there was the potential that one of my focus necessities would be missing.
I noticed him when I walked in… the man who was the lone Starbucks visitor before my entrance. He sat lifeless in a chair with very little laid out on the table. Instead of a computer perched or a coffee in hand, this man sat without the same fast-moving vibe that most who venture into the shop do. Most days, while seated at my “coffee shop office,” I spend some time contemplating the stories of the lives around me. What business were they engaged in? What bucket list items did they have? Was their day destined for great things or were they prepping for expected doom? But this day, I was too rushed to envision anything, especially anything in relation to this single man.
I prepped my space for my impending conference call, pulling out my headset that was tucked into my traveling office. As usual, the wires were tangled, and as I spent a few minutes trying to untangle the web they had found themselves in, I noticed that the man had moved. He was fumbling over napkins by the trashcan next to my chair. Without overthinking it, I made eye-contact with him and asked what many people ask others without ever thinking of the answer. “Hi! Are you having a good day?”
There’s a reason many of us like people-watching but don’t like people-engaging. There is a sense of excitement and wonder trying to come up with the stories behind the facial expressions of passersby. But that magical feeling has the power to deplete itself when we know the hard truth. And this day, the moment the words dripped from my lips, I knew that I wasn’t ready for his answer.
He shook his head, noting that his day had been anything but good, and retreated to a single chair within eye sight of mine. All I had the time for was a simplistic response, knowing that I had a call waiting for me. “I’m sorry. I hope your day gets better.” We smiled – my smile knowing that may day still had potential… his smile confirming that he would likely experience more challenges before he found a place to rest later.
With that, I pulled on my headset and for an hour and a half, I conducted a conference call with a woman on the other side of the country. We spoke of joy and excitement. I learned of her business dreams and her business successes. I shared my business plans and my family’s upcoming house build experience.
We spoke of the power we each have to make a difference in this world, and yet, with every beautiful topic our conversation touched on, I couldn’t help but get the sense that I was being watched. Occasionally I would look up from my computer screen where I was taking copious notes, but I didn’t have to look to know that the man I had met by the trashcan was intently listening to every single word I spoke.
As I wrapped up my call, I started thinking of the next place I needed to be… the next person that was depending upon me. And yet, as I re-tangled the headset and placed it back in its home in my luggage piece, my heart told me it was time to stop for the day. No work demand was worth more than a conversation that was patiently awaiting. It was time for me to pause and savor a moment with a person I had never met.
Phil. I found out later that was the name of the man that had been watching my every move. As I put my computer away, I rolled it over to the seat that he was occupying and asked him the only question I could muster up the strength to ask. “I’m really sorry that you’re not having a good day. Is there something that I can do to help make your day better?”
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I was fearful of his answer as I wasn’t sure I had much to give in the sense of what I suspected he may need. Clothing. Food. Shelter. A friend. But I quickly found that I had more than enough to change his day.
He spoke of housing, asking if he could help me with the build of my new home. He was willing to do odd jobs to help make some money. Unfortunately, not only was my house nearly 45 minutes away from where we met, but we hadn’t even broken ground on building. I knew it wasn’t much, but on the eve of one of the coldest nights in the city, I offered to buy him some food, hopeful that something warm would make a difference. A large hot chocolate is what he opted for, and I decided that he wouldn’t just get one, but I would give him a gift card to let him get three more when he wanted them. It wasn’t much, I know, but I was hopeful that it would lift his spirits some.
I informed Phil that when the barista called hot chocolate, it was his, and I gifted him with the gift card I had just purchased to accompany it. A thousand thank yous spewed from his lips, but there is one that I’ll never forget. After thanking me for the drink, he shifted the conversation totally, and thanked me for something that no gift card could ever buy.
“What is your name?” he asked me. That’s when I learned his name was Phil. “Stephanie, thank you for looking at me…looking at me in my eyes… and asking me how my day was. You didn’t have to do that.”
I took a deep breath and soaked in the story of this man who frequented his local coffee shop for likely much different reasons than I did. I craved a latte. He craved warmth. I sought wi-fi. He sought a safe haven. I’d become accustomed to little interaction. He had begged for someone to notice him.
My heart became heavy, knowing that many times before I had, too, overlooked others like Phil. We all likely have. But there is a beautiful thing about life. Just because we used to do something doesn’t mean we have to continue to. And that day, I spoke something that I had always needed to say and to hear.
“Please don’t thank me for that, Phil. You are worth being looked in the eyes and spoken to. And I’m so sorry that you don’t always get that. But I hope today, your hot chocolate lets you know that to me you are worth it.”
I made a new friend that night, someone that I hope I meet again. Phil promised me that he would be back again, like he was most days, and he promised me he had a warm place to go that night too, which was a worry of mine. We promised to talk again, and as I left, the man who had had a not so great day had a smile on his face.
No matter what you are experiencing in your life, I believe that we can learn a lot from Phil. We can come to appreciate the power of the pause – of stopping our rushed lifestyle to not just see others around us, but experience conversations with them. We can remember how important connection is and how each of us are deserving, no matter what we are going through, of receiving it. But most of all, I hope that Phil reminds us that we, as humans in community, are meant to be a hand when someone needs one… to be a listening ear when someone has no one else… and to be a gift to another when all they need is a reason to smile again.