The Man At The Fountain: Homelessness

“Hey Brother,” he said. “How are you?”

“Hey. I’m good thanks.” I said glancing back at him.

“The fountain looks good this time of night doesn’t it?”

“Really nice.” I stopped walking and turned around, facing both him and the fountain.

It really was impressive. I had just snapped a few pics in the early evening light at Logan Square, and began heading back across the street to the wedding. It was an unusually warm night for early November and I had pushed my luck by staying outside as long as I did. The wedding reception I was playing trumpet for started in a few minutes. 

As I strolled across the stone walkway towards the sidewalk, I had caught site of him out of the corner of my left eye. He was a somewhat tall, reasonably thin man in a black polar fleece quarter zip. He had called to me from a few feet away as our paths narrowly missed intersecting.

“Do you live near here?” he asked.

“No,  I’m just in town for the night. I’m from Lancaster.”

“Yeah- I know Lancaster. Amish country, right?” he said smiling.

“Yes sir.” I laughed back.

“Look man I’m gonna be honest with you. I live on the street, mostly because I screwed my life up with a drug addiction. I’m clean and sober now for 3 months, and very happy to be that way, but I’m still stuck out here struggling on the street. There’s a Wawa… You know Wawa?”

“Sure- we have Wawa in Lancaster too”.  (Wawa is a regionally famous deli/convenience store/gas station loved by basically everyone)

“Haha- great! Well there’s a Wawa a few blocks away, and if you could spare me a couple dollars, I could probably get something to eat. I’m struggling and I hate doing this, but I’m not into robbing people or doing crazy shit, I’m just trying to get through another night out here.”

I dipped into my pocket and took out the worn, silver money clip; the one my daughter gave me when she moved off to college, and thumbed through my cash.

“I got two ones, a five and a twenty.”

Doubting that seven dollars would cover, I handed him the twenty.

“Here you go.”

He hesitated for a second before taking it. “Twenty? Thank you! There’s a dollar store nearby to, with this I can stop by and get a couple things after dinner. I really appreciate it man -it was a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thanks man- you too.” I said. “Good luck.”

“You’re in town just for the night?”

“Yeah, I have a wedding across the street at the Logan.” (The Logan is a high-end hotel in Center City Philadelphia)

“Dude, this is your wedding night and you’re over here talking to me?!”  I was wearing most of a tux and he apparently mistook me for the groom.

“No no- I’m just a trumpet player in the wedding band. I’m just going to work.”

“Oh- OK!” he said laughing at himself. “Thanks again,” he said. “And have fun at the wedding.”

“Thanks-good luck to you.” I said again as we shook hands and parted.

I went across the street and joined my bandmates. We spent the evening packing the dance floor with well dressed, fabulous looking people, full after a fine meal,  drunk on free booze, and overflowing with joy for the very nice couple whose wedding it was.

After The Gig

Several hours later, I stood on the street again, looking across the jumbo sized, circular intersection as the “walk” signal took its time appearing. Half a block down on my side of the street, a man appeared to be lying face down on the sidewalk.

It was late and there was no traffic. A single car was on the street, a white SUV which had pulled over to the curb. I could see the driver’s head leaning out the window. I assumed he was trying to get the man’s attention.

The man rolled over completely until he was facedown again. The SUV drove off, and I crossed the street hoping that I would not have to deal with this guy. I was tired and had a long drive home. I assumed the man was okay and not in need of immediate medical attention, otherwise the SUV driver would have done something. 

He appeared to be sleeping as I walked silently past him and up to the next intersection where another man lay sleeping on his back, a stop sign as his only shelter. I moved by quietly so as not to wake him, both out of respect for him and also because I didn’t want to be bothered. Two blocks later I was in my car and headed home.

When I arrived back in my hometown, I stopped at Wawa for a late night sandwich. I thought about the man I met at the fountain as I sat in my car eating a turkey hoagie. He had been headed to Wawa too.

Oil, vinegar and a little old bay dripped off the sandwich wrapper and onto my white tux shirt.  I was irritated but grateful, realizing that although I am not rich, the possibility of having to buy a new tux shirt pales in comparison to the hurdles faced every day by my Wawa-loving counterpart back at the fountain.

Three days earlier in my hometown I had been approached by two homeless people. I don’t remember much about those interactions because they came in the middle of my conversation with a friend. But I do remember giving the first person a few dollars. I straight-up ignored the next person as if they didn’t exist, turning my head so as not to disrupt the conversation I was having.

Why do I act like this?

It’s Complicated.

Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is.

I’d like to say that I’m empathetic and always do what I can to help those in need. I always am empathetic, at least on the inside. And I do help.

Sometimes.

Often, but not always.

Sometimes I want to walk to my car unbothered and go home. Sometimes I want to talk to my friend about our petty business as I walk through town unapproached. Sometimes I’m skeptical as to how an interaction might go so I avoid it on purpose. 

Sometimes things go well like they did tonight at the fountain. Sometimes they don’t. Once I gave a lady money for a sandwich but she asked for $10 more so she could get her favorite food at a local restaurant. I was irritated. I said no and walked away.

I’m neither a completely good guy nor a total asshole. I truly want those in need to be helped, even though I’m sometimes too petty and self- absorbed to actually do it myself. I know we can’t always help every needy person we encounter, but I’m still not comfortable with my sometimes lacking will to engage. Maybe I’m just a whiner who needs to shut up and step up.

I have some things to work through, but how lucky am I to be doing it in comfort instead of having to decide which concrete block of sidewalk to sleep on.

Follow us at here at Wise & Shine and sign up for our newsletter to keep up to date on recent posts and upcoming offerings. For related reading, check out Like A Rainbow by Victoria Atkinson. You can also follow Todd Fulginiti’s personal blog, Five O’Clock Shadow.

For Todd Fulginiti, musician- visit www.toddfulginiti.com


41 thoughts on “The Man At The Fountain: Homelessness

  1. Wow, Todd. Thank you for this. I think you’ve described a push-pull dilemma that I hadn’t put words to — the desire to help…which, like you, I believe is innate for most of us – but it can be muddled up with an overwhelming feeling that what we do, as individuals, isn’t enough. For me, that feeling sometimes translates into a kind of disengagement, a little hopelessness — manifesting in behavior that seems contrary – helping one person and then passing by others. Grateful for your post… ❤

  2. I share many of your thoughts and concerns Todd. Yes it is complicated isn’t it and frequently I’m torn and ask myself if I’m doing the best thing – give money? give food and coffee? pay for shelter?
    We are so fortunate 🙏🏼

  3. It’s natural to feel that way when someone says for extra money, we work hard for it and think before spending ourselves. And it’s good to give some when in need 🙂
    It was quite a relatable post Todd.

  4. There’s a profoundness to this that’s masked by the narrator’s uncertainty. We all want to be the heroes of our own stories, and we all want to be heroic, but the reality we live in makes that a constant risk. We don’t know how these interactions will go, and we do know that nothing we do can make very much difference in the grand scheme. But a small and simple act of kindness can make a profound difference to the person we show it to. I’m like the narrator. I pick my interactions and am usually able to avoid the ones that are likely to go south. But every one I pass by is a reminder that I’m not the hero that I want to be, just a bit player who’s generally on the side of good. For most of us, that will have to be enough.

    Great job expressing this difficult subject in an engaging manner. Maybe this is part of your contribution.

  5. I behave a bit differently. I don’t like giving money to homeless people because they might end up in spending it in booze. I bring them food, or clothes, blankets, shoes…

  6. Great post, Todd. I think Vicki described it well as a push/pull and I can really relate to the feeling on both sides. Like you, I sometimes respond and sometimes don’t. Homelessness has gotten so pervasive in Seattle that it feels hopeless. And trying to describe my philosophy to my kids has become impossible. Great point (and great writing) in your final line. You’ve inspired me to do better!

    1. Thanks Wynne- I can imagine that being difficult to describe to the kids, we went through the same thing when ours were young

  7. One of the things I am really mindful of with regard to the homeless community is that they are treated like utter rubbish. I was crouched down chatting to a guy sitting on the floor once and the overt distain from people walking by was a surprise to me.

    I try to really hold decent eyes contact (not in an intimidating way but open-hearted and accepting way) and talk respectfully, imagining them in their best self – as washed and dressed and as well put together as the next person. I used to do this for my patients in intensive care when I was nursing: extremis makes a person look unrecognisable sometimes and often a photo by the bedside of the patient in the bed had very little resemblance to their current look. It helped to see who they are in their best to think of aiming back to that for them, and I have the same mindset with the homeless.

    We have a decent conversation and I treat them as the equally valued fellow-human that they are, but I don’t give money; I always ask how I can help in that moment with food or drink of their choice, mindful that this could be any of us. But now I’ve fallen on hard times and even though I have a roof over my head, feeding me and my children is now hardest it’s ever been and it makes it harder to give as freely as I used to. Sometimes if I’m feeling the pinch or can’t stop because of time pressures then I at least give them the courtesy of an open, friendly smile as I rush past. I remember reading once that being homeless means people stop giving you eye contact or holding conversation, which makes them feel like a worthless object, so at least I can not be that person for them.

    1. A beautiful comment- if we all viewed the homeless as not less than everyone else, we would have a much better chance of solving the problem.

  8. Ps: slightly off topic but it made me smile when you spoke to your irritation at the spilt food on your clothes. I get so irate with myself it makes me tell myself off and I wonder why it matters so much! So it kind of made me feel better to read of someone else being irritated by the same, thanks for giving me that! 😄

  9. We cannot give to everyone who asks. It’s a group project. I mostly give to Christian orgs that help the homeless find care and transformation to lead healthier lives. But I am a sucker for someone with a dog.

    1. You’re right- it’s definitely something that has to be addressed by groups/organizations in order to really be dealt with

  10. What a thought-provoking and relatable post! I understand when you say, “I’d like to say that I’m empathetic and always do what I can to help those in need. I always am empathetic, at least on the inside. And I do help.”
    I find the decision of when and how to help difficult, even when I am empathetic. Because, I don’t know if the money I have given will be used for food and not for addictions. I prefer to buy food, or give gift cards to an eatery than giving money to individuals. I send money to the organizations that I know spend most of the donations on the needy and not on admin.
    Best wishes.

  11. This was such a beautiful read and what I found even more touching in it is your pure honesty and nakedness in sharing who and how you can be in such an encounters.
    Your story reminds me of the book “The invisible acts of power” by Caroline Myss. You can find the Audiobook on YouTube.

  12. Maybe we occasionally overthink things. I’d suggest that we help when we’re able. It’s not all or nothing when someone is hurting, hungry or even scared. Do your best and demonstrate your compassion for your fellow man/woman when possible. Todd, the individual, doesn’t have unlimited funds or energy to solve the larger issue. The smaller, but vital, issue was simply helping the gentleman at the fountain with his immediate need of a meal. Make a difference whenever you can and hopefully so will some of your fellow humans. Those of us fortunate enough to have a warm home & adequate nourishment today should consider ourselves blessed, not entitled by something we did. Homeless folks never thought it would happen to them either. God Bless you, Todd.

Leave a Reply