This year, I experienced my very first Thanksgiving. But I wasn’t in America. I wasn’t even in London.
Here’s what happened.
I was in Birmingham for the first time with work. On the way back, I ended up missing my train, so I walked to Birmingham New Street station to see if I could catch another.
I walked through the brightly-lit tunnel between Moor Street and New Street but, taking a look at my ticket, I realised I could only travel on Chiltern Rail.
I wearily schlepped back down the tunnel, wondering what on earth I was going to do with the best part of an hour until the next train on a chilly November evening in a city I didn’t know. That’s when I saw him.
Sitting crossed-legged on a sleeping bag, hunched over a sign in his lap, was a homeless man. He’d fallen asleep mid-letter with the pen still in his hand. ‘Poor guy’, I thought.
It’s usually at this point that I do a quick run-through in my head of everything I have on me. Not because I’m afraid the homeless person is going to mug me, but because I’m always conscious that I hardly ever help them and then feel guilty. My first thought is, ‘Do I have any food with me?’ Usually I don’t, but this time, I did. Nevertheless, I kept walking.
My conscience was outraged. ‘Come on, Shiraz. You know you didn’t finish your lunch today. You could give him the rest of your food. Go on, go back!’ And so, as I had nowhere particular to be other than sat on my arse on a cold platform bench, I turned around.
I crouched down and said hi. The man jerked awake and said in a gentle Brummy drawl, ‘Oh sorry, I must’ve fallen asleep there! It’s been a long day.’ He gave me a tired smile and I decided at once that I liked him.
I told him I had some food for him if he was hungry.
He accepted my cold pizza gratefully and then asked me how my day was.
It was during the next 45 minutes that I had one of the most profound exchanges with a stranger that I’ve ever had. This guy was clearly lonely and I wasn’t going anywhere for a while, so I decided to pull up a slab of cold pavement, sit and listen to him.
I learnt that his name was John and that he’d been homeless for just over a year. He’d been a roofer and had worked in Richmond for seven years, with a flat and family. But he’d had a mental breakdown, lost his job and couldn’t keep up payments on his mortgage. He didn’t accept any help, didn’t listen to the people he loved and one by one, they disappeared from his life. He crashed on his friends’ sofas for a while but this had become impractical, so he found himself on the street with no support network at all. Everywhere he turned, people he trusted had let him down repeatedly. He’s on every waiting list the council has to offer but as a single male with no dependents, he’ll be waiting a long time.
At this point, I started to cry. But it wasn’t John’s story that moved me. It was his unbridled positivity. Here he was, an intelligent guy talking about how his life crumbled around him, and yet he told me that he knows it’s going to get better for him. He knows that as soon as he can afford a place in a hostel, he can get his benefits again, then find work, and then get his life back together. But this was hard for him, as people would only give him £1 at the most and he always had to decide whether to save it or use the money on food.
‘I refuse to believe this is it. If I allow myself for one second to believe that this is all there is to life, I might as well top myself tomorrow. But I won’t, because I’ve come this far and it can’t get any worse. I’ve got back to the person I was before my breakdown, so I have to stay positive. I have no choice.’
As he spoke, he was smiling and cracking jokes. I suddenly felt terrible about how much I’d been complaining lately about my spoilt, petty first-world problems. Stressed at work? At least I’ve got a job. Live in a house with too many people? I have a roof over my head, my own key and a warm bed. Hungry? I could just buy anything I wanted to eat. Single? I have the love of my family and friends.
Everything I’d taken for granted in the past few months, moaning about all I didn’t have, lay in front of me and I finally saw how stupid I’d been. But it took me to sit on the cold, hard ground face-to-face with a homeless man who was positivity personified, for me to realise it.
I was so thankful for John that I couldn’t leave without sharing more with him. I asked him if he had anything to read and he said no, so I gave him my book. He was delighted to have something to read again. I then gave him a tenner so that he could eat AND save at the same time. It was then his turn to cry, so we said a teary goodbye and shared a hug.
As I hastily bought a makeshift dinner from the kiosk at the station and boarded my train, I couldn’t help thinking… ‘Wow. I just spent £7 on a sandwich meal. I am one lucky, lucky fucker.’ And I cried again.
I will never forget my time with John. I may have given him a book and my leftovers, but he’d given me something far more precious – gratefulness, grounding and positivity.
Our mutual exchange that evening was the most beautiful thing to have happened to me all year.
Next time you see a homeless person and you don’t have anywhere to be, take a chance and just have a chat with them. They’ll be grateful you didn’t walk past as if they were invisible, and you will learn so much about humanity.
We always make excuses for ourselves: got no change, too busy, can’t stop, won’t stop. But it’s all bullshit because we can give SO many things. Give them your newspaper, play their favourite song for them on YouTube, or tell them a joke to cheer them up. You will make a huge difference to their day, and you might walk away a better person for it.
If you enjoyed this post, why not check out ‘Are We Commercialising Happiness?’