A Bagel, A Bench, and a Brand New Life

When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed. – Maya Angelou

There is an undeniable fact about giving from one’s heart: it does as much or more for the giver as the receiver. There is a reason the phrase, “Pay it forward,” became so ubiquitous. It implies that the thing I just did for you is not intended to be returned BACK to me, but, onward to another person in need. And, the mystery of it all brings a feeling of goodness and safety in the world. I’m good at some things, and others…not so much. One of the things I AM good at is being fairly keen at seeing a person in need, blatant or subtle, and trying to do something about it. I can’t buy them a new car, but I can bring out an extra sandwich from the sub shop. This story happens to start with a bagel. There was a gentleman who lived in another city where I used to live. He was homeless and a permanent fixture in the downtown area on the busiest block of the city. Park benches were his bed by night and his couch by day. One day, I was ashamed at my realization that I had, not once, offered this man food. Not my style. I was buying a late breakfast at the bagel shop on the corner when I decided that was the day I would make right with my conscious and with him and just give him some food. I took him a breakfast sandwich, a coffee and a banana. I had the same. I asked him if I could sit and eat with him. He laughed and pushed his ruck off the bench, pretended to dust the park bench off and gestured with both palms up for me to have a seat. We exchanged names, (let’s call him John)  and some comments about the weather. For whatever reason, I asked him something that was none of my business. I asked him if he wanted to be homeless. He stopped smiling, stared at his bagel just short of his mouth before taking a bite, then looked at me. “Who do you think is gonna hire ME? MEE?…Look at me. It don’t matter what I want, Miss Dawn. This is what I got. You understand?” I told him, no, I didn’t understand. But, that if he would show up at the same place tomorrow at exactly 12:00, I’d buy him lunch. The following day, there we were again. Today, I told him he got to choose where we were eating. He chose an affordable little Thai restaurant, and we dined in. He was rather uneasy about the whole affair, I sensed. But, once we were seated, and we ordered, he was breathing easier, but only for a minute. He commented on my business suit and the contrast to his clothing in desperate need of washing, and said, “Will you please tell them you are under no duress, being here with me?” He laughed, but I knew. He felt less than. I leaned in and said, “I want to make a deal with you. If you apply for a job, everyday, I will buy you lunch everyday, at noon, for as long as you are making you a better you.” He didn’t get the catch. I explained there was no catch…look for a job, and we’ll have lunch, everyday. This went on for about 2 weeks, and one day, I arrived at our meeting place and he wasn’t there. I sat down and before I had even settled in, I heard, “Miss Dawn! Miss Dawn, I’m here. That interview went longer than I expected.” “What! You just got out of an interview?” High fives and hugs and laughs… “Can you believe it!”…”Yes! Of course I can believe it! Let’s celebrate.” This time, he wasn’t so hesitant to dine in. It was my turn to pick the restaurant. By now, we were just two friends catching up, sharing details of our lives, both deep and mundane. He told me how he’d landed so down on his luck and that everyone had given up on him, that they looked away when they saw him, that he made people uncomfortable. And, I knew he had learned to become just as uncomfortable with himself. That he was addressed as, “Sir,” in the restaurants seemed to make him sit a bit taller. He started to look the server in the eye. The next day was Saturday, and I wouldn’t be back downtown until Monday, our routine. On Monday, however, I met a different John. He smiled as I walked up. This time, I was apologizing for the board meeting running late. He said he sure dreaded that nonsense when he was a boss man. And, he waited for a response with raised eyebrows and a cheeky smile. “Wait..What!? YOU GOT A JOB!??” He laughed and shook his head and shouted, “I have a jooooob!!” We made quite the scene as we loudly proclaimed in square dance fashion, “John has a job! John has a job!” We took up more than our share of the side walk as we danced and sang our impromptu celebratory welcoming of John’s employment. He had been hired as a painter. He would be painting houses from 7am-5pm. And, since they only got 30 minutes for lunch and 2 fifteen minute breaks, we wouldn’t be meeting the following day, but a week from that Thursday would be his first day off. We decided to stick to the same meeting place and time. I was just arriving when rolling up on a bicycle was John. He’d gotten paid and bought himself a bike. He chained it to his bag at night and slept on his ruck for fear of it being stolen. During this time, I worked as a director at a drug and alcohol treatment facility. I had some connections with programs across the country. There, in our city, a home had opened up less than a year prior for homeless men. They had to be employed and drug free. I dared not mention this rather hush-hush facility…they were still not fully up and running, and the guys who did live there were there only to remodel and make the building more livable. I contacted the founder and explained John’s plight. Reluctantly, he told me to send him over, but promised nothing. John went to a local McDonald’s, washed up with some toiletries I’d given him and met with the home’s founder that evening. I couldn’t help myself. I sat in the parking lot until I saw John walk out. I opened my car door and yelled his name. He saw me, did a little dance and once again, we were celebrating John’s life on the upswing. He moved in three days later and proudly showed me the first key to his own place he’d had in…”Dear Lord…forever…” Our lunches continued as his work allowed, but after he was promoted to a crew commander, as they called it, he had less time. The last time we met, John reminded me it was my turn to pick the restaurant. I picked a little pub downtown that served great cheeseburgers. When the tab arrived, he reached for it and opened his wallet, looking at me and smiling the whole while. I knew that possibly the most important I could ever do for John was to let him pay for our meal. I was as proud as one human can be of another. I thanked him for the best burger I’d had all year. And, his face grew solemn. He said, “Miss Dawn, there’s something I’ve not told you…See, I didn’t really want to get a job, because I didn’t want to be told, ‘no’ one more time. So I gave up trying to get hired even washing out the cities portable toilets. I wasn’t good enough to clean up the filth of the people that walk past me on these streets everyday. But, I knew you needed me to try. And, so, I went to all those places looking for work for YOU. I didn’t have the heart to tell you ain’t nobody could use me, anymore.” He stopped talking but, I remained quiet. The pregnant pause was about to tell me something far greater. He said, “I felt good about myself, not because I was looking for work, again, but because it just made you happy. And, ain’t nobody been happy with me in a long, long time.” I wasn’t entirely surprised at his revelation, but I was thrilled with the ending. He said that all that time we’d been eating and meeting and looking for jobs and housing, he did it because he didn’t have the heart to break mine. He “knew” he was a waste of my time, but I’d have to figure that out for myself, he said. I simply said, “And, now?” John said that when he met me, he’d eat other people’s leftovers and would go into the service stations and wait to catch the door of the restroom as another patron was coming out so he could go in and clean up as best he could. He couldn’t afford to buy anything in the store which allowed him rights to the restroom. “That’s a long way down, Miss Dawn.” I agreed that it must have been about as low as one could feel. But, in less than a month, John had found a job, shelter, a bed of his own, a bicycle and a friend that he claimed was better to him than anyone ever had been. That hurt to hear. I’d done nothing more than provide lunch in exchange for job searches. It wasn’t for quite some time that I realized just how much more John knew than I did, about our friendship. He DID know that I needed him to look for a job. I needed to see this man find himself again. I needed for him to have more in this world than a park bench to call home. I needed him to have a place to wash the new clothes he’d be buying. I needed HIM. And, when all was said and done, he needed me, too. The truth of this story is very basic. We humans feel good when we help one another. It’s always perplexed me…we NEVER feel joy when we are combatting others, face to face, in our cars, from behind a computer screen. It may feel good to get a jab in, but joy? No. Never. Only when we are our best version of ourselves can joy befall us. I hope John is out there, still, improving his life everyday. I hope he’s still gainfully employed, happy, warm, sheltered and needed. I hope someone turns around and pays for his coffee today, because he would most definitely turn right around and pay for the person behind him. John grasped, with ease, what escapes so many of us. Helping another is the reward. I am living in another city, now, over a thousand miles from where I met John. In real time, the simple act of remembering the joy of being there to witness his growth has sparked a resolution to serve another human in ways I used to do regularly in my former city. Writing is magic like that…you think you’re sitting down to make a blog post and your mind morphs as you saturate it in the authentic salve of remembering who and what you are…Tomorrow morning, I will go downtown and make myself available to someone in need. I will offer a meal, a conversation and if accepted, an offer to meet another human at set times and play my small role in witnessing another being make a better life than the one they have as I complete this entry. Hitting publish on this one is gonna be tough, for if I do, I will be accountable…and, for anyone following, you are welcomed and encouraged to ask for updates on this project of me being a better me, as I step out to both express my need to help and answer a plea for the same. Peace, Warriors.


  1. Dear Anon… Thank you for thinking as much, but the reality is- if it required a lot of effort to overcome the desire NOT to do it, I probably wouldn’t do it. (Truth) Fortunately, it’s just an easy thing that I figured out made the world a bit better, and, myself, a lot better.


  2. Perhaps my favorite yet. We all have a little bit of john inside us now, or at least we did. Thanks for this Dawn. ❤️


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