Last weekend we were in Atlanta for business. My husband Alex and I run an entertainment website and we were covering the TomorrowWorld music festival. Since we only received one media pass, I opted to stay back in the hotel room and let him go to the music festival. On Saturday afternoon I started to get a little bored, stuck at my computer posting on our site and writing my next book, so I decided to venture out into Atlanta. A friend had Tweeted me that he was also in Atlanta for the Outkast concert and so I decided to walk down to where the concert was being held to take in the festivities before it began. When I got there, I found myself squeezed in between people selling t-shirts and barbecue, fans running in the streets to get to the concert before it started and people just hanging out, there for the festivities even though they weren’t going to the concert. Usually in a situation like this I would just keep on walking but something inside of me suggested that maybe I should sit down and hang out for awhile.
A few minutes after I sat down this guy came up and sat down next to me. He looked over at me and smiled and I smiled back. I’m not really sure how we got to talking but after several minutes he asked me why it was so easy for me to talk to a black, homeless man without seeing those things about him.
“I don’t know.” I answered honestly. I hadn’t really thought much about him being homeless before he mentioned it. “Are you?”
“Am I what? Black?”
“No,” I laughed. “Homeless.”
“Yes. Does that bother you?”
I shook my head. “It makes me sad I guess.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I just can’t imagine it.”
He pointed to a tall building across the city. “I worked there for 35 years. Five years ago I was diagnosed with lung cancer. I could only get workers comp for so long but I had to keep missing work because of the treatments. My medical leave protected me from losing my job but it didn’t pay my bills. Before long I was depressed and couldn’t get out of bed. Eventually I lost my job. After I lost my job I lost my house and then my car and before I knew it I was living on the streets.” He looked up and smiled at me. “I’m homeless and I’m dying, but I’m not like a lot of these guys. I’m clean and sober.”
“Me too,” I said.
“See, we have lot’s in common,” he smiled again and patted my knee.
For a few minutes we just sat there in silence. I wasn’t really sure what to say. I didn’t want to get up and be rude and the conversation didn’t feel like it was over yet.
“I’m Peter,” I said, holding out my hand.
He laughed heartily. “Now look. Here I am talking about all my sad stuff and not even polite enough to introduce myself. Nice to meet you Peter, I’m Daniel.”
“It’s nice to meet you too.”
“What do you do, Peter?”
“I’m a writer.”
His eyes perked up. “Are you going to write about meeting me?”
“Maybe. Do you want me to?” I asked.
He was silent for a moment and then nodded. “Yes, but only if you get it right. If someone can learn from my story then yes I do think I would like to be in your book.”
I hadn’t mentioned a book nor that I would include him in one of my books but I didn’t want to correct him. “Can I take our picture together. For what I write?”
He nodded. “But like I said, only if you get it right. I want you to take notes about what I say.”
I smiled and brought out my phone, snapping a quick picture of the two of us sitting there. I turned my phone to my notes section and held it out showing him. “You really are a for real writer, aren’t you Peter?” he asked, slapping my knee. I always liked when people finished sentences with my name. These days we say things like “hey” or “buddy” and I’m even at fault for this, but it shows real class to talk to someone directly and use their name.
“I guess I want to talk to you about the guillotine,” he said.
“The guillotine?” I asked.
A few young guys came and sat close to us. Daniel pulled me down closer and spoke to me in hushed tones. He stroked his chin and looked off in the distance. “I want to make sure I get this right,” he said. “OK, OK. When you sat down, why did you smile at me instead of walking away?”
I thought about it for a second. “I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you call me a name or spit at me?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I tend to not call people names.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“I guess because I was called names so many times in my life. It hurts. I don’t like being called names.”
He grabbed my shirt and pressed on my heart. “It’s because you have heart, son. Pain comes from a person’s heart. Why did I wake up today? To be insulted? To be out down. To be disregarded because of my color or my age or because I’m homeless? No, I have a heart just like everyone else. I have feelings just like everyone else.” He paused for a moment, stroking his beard again. “Feeling is buried in our heart. If you break a person’s heart it never goes away. They become depressed. Suicidal.”
“Have you been suicidal?”
Daniel grabbed my shoulder. “Peter, I’m going to forget that you just asked me that stupid question. Have I ever been suicidal? Of course. Pain comes at you every day and you fight it and fight it and fight it. And then after awhile, you just don’t have the energy to fight it anymore so you just stay in bed or you take drugs or drink. That’s suicidal because really you just don’t want to live anymore. Then you don’t get out of bed or you’re in a haze of drugs and alcohol and after awhile, well, there’s just no way out.”
“But you’re still here,” I said, more a statement than a question. “Why are you still here? Why didn’t you kill yourself?”
He held up his finger. “That’s what I wanted to tell you about, so that maybe someone will read it and it will lighten their heart and they won’t have to die. I wanted to talk to you about the guillotine.” Daniel took a sip of his water bottle and looked out at the people swarming the street. “I wasn’t going to come out today. It was busy and hot but God sent me out here for a reason. Do you know what a guillotine is? It’s the thing they used to behead people in France? Well, imagine as the pain sets in from years and years of being called names, put down, kicked in the ribs, over and over and over again. Slowly, you start to put your head in the guillotine. After awhile, you lose a job or a relationship and they blade starts coming down slower and slower. Then you add drugs or alcohol or the depression sets in and the blade comes down a little bit more. People’s hearts are hardened because people give up. You fight it and fight it but after awhile, you just can’t fight it anymore and the guillotine blade comes down and kills you. That’s suicide. It’s less a choice than a circumstance.”
“Then how did you make it out? How are you still here?”
He laughed. “I’m not completely out yet. But I never gave up. And I’ll never give up. I’ll never give up until they have to embalm my black butt and then I’ll see you in paradise. And make sure you write it just like that. Black butt.”
I laughed. “But how do you continue to fight? I know so many people that just couldn’t fight it anymore.”
“Peter, how old were you when you got clean and sober?”
“Twenty-two,” I answered.
“What keeps you clean and sober today?”
I thought about it for a minute. “I’m not really sure. Gratitude I guess. And having a strong spiritual foundation.”
Daniel looked down at my feet in my flip-flops. “You have nice toenails.”
I laughed. “Thanks.”
“It’s not funny,” he said. “When you’re homeless, you don’t think about things like trimming your toenails. You take those things you used to do on a regular basis for granted. Then one day, your toenails are long and cutting into the side of your shoes, but you can’t afford nail clipper and if you pull at them or rip them you might infect your foot so you just let them grow long and since they’re long, they cut into your shoes and you start walking funny. That’s why most homeless people walk funny. Bet you didn’t know that.”
I was kind of taken aback. Put in my place really. In all of the things I was grateful for, I would never have thought to be grateful for cutting my toenails.
Daniel could sense the internal struggle in my face. “I’m not trying to make you feel back, I just want you to never lose that sense of gratitude. You have to remember you’re human inside. Don’t let the pain take over and harden your heart. Don’t ever give up.”
I hadn’t noticed while he had been talking that he had taken off his shoe and sock. He held out his foot and showed me five perfectly trimmed toenails. “No matter what, I’ll never give up. It’s the small things that matter most.”
I wasn’t laughing anymore, because in that moment I realized that on the turn of a dime, I could be Daniel. We all could. And I would be going back to a hotel room to order room service and watch a movie and complain about my boredom while he looked for a place to sleep.
“Don’t be sad about me,” Daniel said, sliding his sock and shoe back on. “I’ll be OK. I’ve gotten by alright for sixty-four years so far.”
“I…I don’t know what to say,” I said, standing up. “Can I help you with…” I started rifling in my pocket for some money but Daniel stopped me.
“Please don’t. Write about me. Help people to understand they don’t ever have to give up. They can be kinder to people and smile at them on the street. They can fight and fight and keep on fighting until they have peace of mind like I do today. Please, let me be bigger than any money you were going to give me. Let me have that.” I started to cry. I always cry. I looked up and Daniel’s eyes were teary too.
“You’re a good kid, Peter. A really good person.” He hugged me and started to walk away, but stopped and turned back. “Just don’t ever forget.”
I looked at him, people rushing past me in the warm dusk of Atlanta. “What?”
“Your toenails,” Daniel said. “Always trim your toenails!” He smiled and walked into the crowd, quickly lost in the mass of people.
I stood there for a few minutes before turning and trying to find my way back to the hotel. I looked back several times to see if he was still there, but he was gone.
And even though I know I’ll ever see him again and maybe I’ll even wonder from time to time if he’s still alive or if he’s been lost to lung cancer, I’ll always have those 30 minutes with Daniel in Atlanta. And every time I walk with the comfort of my trimmed toenails, I’ll be walking in gratitude for my life. And I’ll never forget…
*This one was for you Daniel. It was an honor meeting you!