My entire face is burnt from standing in the sun for 9 straight hours at the exposition. I broke my mile record while running to work today because parking anywhere near the convention center meant that I had to spill $40 out of my wallet. Instead of walking back to my car empty-headed, I gathered 3 boxes of goodies (who knew goodies were so heavy) so I can drop it off to my friends' families because I know they'd love it. All in all, I'm sure I would have performed better had I slept the night before but work hard, play hard. Am I right? This isn't the most interesting part of my day though, but I'll get to that in just a sec. Let's start from the beginning. Last year, I took an upper division course called, "Ethical Issues in Entertainment and Communication" and one of the topics we dived into was homelessness, particularly in Skid Row. Although I've seen homeless people facing extremities in third world countries, I sometimes forget to account that more than 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness each year. I guess one of the advantages about traveling is that it really has helped broaden my view when it comes to these kind of serious issues. At the same time, it also sparked my curiosity to learn more about what's happening in my own home (ie. California, Los Angeles, etc.)
Today, during my lunch break, I had my first one-on-one experience with a homeless man. Rather than sitting on a bench like everyone else, I took a seat on the curb, trying to get as much as shade as I possible could, scrolling through my phone endlessly like I always do. Not too long after I settled down, a man took a seat right next to me. I turned to my right and there he was. I could tell he hasn't shaved in weeks and his clothes looked unwashed. That aside, nothing about him really struck out to me. I knew right away that it wouldn't be long before he struck a conversation and so I waited.
"How old are you?"
"I was going to say...you look like you're 18."
At first, my cranky lack of sleep self felt irritated. While I wouldn't place the blame on anyone other than myself, sleep deprivation + 85 degree weather + talking to people all day long = still cranky, still smiling. Even then, I continue to answer all of the questions he had for me and after two minutes or so, my most FAQ popped up.
"So..are you seeing someone?"
Can't say I wasn't shocked because I definitely was. His question, in this particular setting, was so out of the blue for me. It's either that or I will never understand how people can be so forward about something that is so personal, considering I just met this person.
"I'm sorry. What do you mean by that?"
"Like...do you have a boyfriend?"
At this point, I think he could tell my patience was running short. Instead of mischievously trying to plan my escape route like I normally would at a bar or a club, I closely examined his body language and gestures. He's nervous. I could tell. But it was his eyes that told me he was more than that. He wanted to be heard. He wanted someone to listen to him. So of course, I did what Khanh would do in these kind of situations.
"Tell me your story."
So there I was, sitting on a tiny little curb, having a full on conversation with this man who was a stranger just a couple of minutes ago. Turns out, Michael (let's call him Michael. I'm really bad with names) has been homeless for two weeks now. While he tried to make ends meet, a friend who originally offered to give him a place to stay randomly decided to kick him out soon after. Nowadays, he's trying to work on his music and his love for rapping/writing lyrics. Initially, he would show me photos of him back when he was in his prime as well as some songs he has written and produced. I knew that these were the kind of gestures any many would have made in order to impress the woman he was talking to. I'm not jumping to conclusions here. You can say that I've finally reached a point where I can tell a person's motive very well. In this case, however, Michael's intent shifted.
At the beginning, he would say something along the lines of, "You know. If I clean up. I clean up really well. I look better than this." I trusted him when he told me that. He had beautiful blue eyes and a nice complexion. But truth be told, I originally felt like I was in an awkward situation between wanting to connect with someone vs being scared as I am anticipating his next move. I didn't really know how to feel or react. Should I stop talking to this guy who is without a doubt showing interest in me? Or should I continue?
For about 15 minutes or so, he went on to tell me more about his background and his music. While I tried to mind my own business, I had a lot of insights on the industry that I wanted to share with him as well as certain critiques about his work. But before I could put in my two cents, I asked him if he was okay with me being brutally honest on his ventures and album covers. I always do this. By this, I mean I have a habit of asking people whether or not they could handle the truth (or at least my perception of what I believe to be true) Why? 1) some people don't take criticism very well; therefore, I respect that and will remain silent 2) I don't sugarcoat things; therefore, what you hear is exactly how I feel about [insert scenario here] Surprisingly, he took all of my suggestions very well. He even went on to ask for my thoughts on marketing tactics and his next career move.
My encounter with Michael lasted no more than twenty minutes. Even then, it really gave me a few perspective on things.
1) Our conversation went from him asking me surface-level questions such as, "Are you seeing someone?" to him telling me, "Khanh, the more I get to know you, the more I like you."
This shows me that when you decide to reveal your most authentic self to a person, their perspective on you will also change.
2) Homelessness does not determine one's character.
Michael, on the outside, looked like every thirty year old man (Although I guessed his age to be 24 because he looked quite young). Truthfully, I would have never guessed he was homeless and so it wasn't until until he told me about what has happened with the fallout of his friend did I realize that he had a big luggage next to him.
Yes, he has less monetary items than one would presume, but I've seen people with the world in their hands and yet they're still unhappy and dissatisfied with themselves. He didn't allow his social disadvantages to define him. So living and financial situation aside, Michael was just your average struggling artist. Talked to me like how any guy would talk to me. He smiled, he shared with me his stories, he wasn't afraid to ask for help, he held on to the fact that he was on 'America's Got Talent' twice. He's a dreamer, that's for sure. I saw it in him and his hunger reminded me of someone I know very well ---myself.
3) Treat everyone with kindness.
At the root of everything is one central theme: love. For the past three years or so, I've practiced giving love to my family, my friends, and more recently, myself. However, I also want to relay that same type of treatment to everyone. I can never stress how important it is to spread love and kindness, especially in a time when so many negative things are happening.
My Conclusion -I think it's extremely important to recognize that homelessness does exist and that it is prevalent and often times, an easily dismissed issue. Instead of neglecting the issue, we should actively try to seek progress in reducing the devastating effect it has on the millions of Americans out there. I say progress rather than solution because I feel like we should take things step-by-step and each day, hopefully, we're that much closer to finding the cure for all.
And so I hope you don't make the same mistake as I did today. At first, I acted very cold to Michael until I finally took the chance and got to know him slightly a bit better. I knew he didn't want sympathy so even after hearing all of the tragic things that has happened to him, I didn't give him that. Instead, I wanted to leave him with something I've been blessed with every single day. Hope. So before I ended my 8 hour workday, I walked over to the corner of the street to find Michael and when I did, I reached over to give him a handshake then I said to him, "I wish you the best of luck on your music career and I'm happy to have met you today."
It's always easy to overlook other people's stories when you're trying to write your own, but if you can, I highly encourage you to take some time out of your day to just listen to someone. Let them speak while you listen. You'll be surprise how much you can learn about a person and what drives them. It starts with you and your open heart.
You and I both are aware of this but we will never know what others go through unless we decide to walk a day in their shoes. Although twenty minutes or a day is only a small glimpse, a small fraction of what really goes down, I will tell you that by tapping into the lives of others, you'll learn and gain more than you've bargained for.