I drove my wife, Robin, to a speaking engagement in San Diego last Saturday. It was a Mother’s Day gig, so after saying hello and huggin necks of some friends, I checked out of the large room with estrogen-laced decorations and headed over to a friend’s borrowed office in the church (Thanks Megan).
As it got closer to lunch I decided to act on the rare but delectable option of getting a Carnitas Burrito from Del Taco. So, I googled up the closest one and headed down the highway.
Arriving at Del Taco I noticed a “rough” looking guy stalking the side entrance. Wanting to avoid him, I tried going through the front doors, but they didn’t have any handles! OMG, they did not want people using these doors to enter (only to exit). I wasn’t going to allow one unsorted guy stop me from getting my Carnitas. As I rounded the corner I was grateful that he had left, or so I thought.
As I entered, the man I’d seen outside, mumbled, “something, something, blah, blah MONEY?” I lied to him, “no, I don’t have any cash.” Sometimes I stash my allowance of a $20 bill folded in my wallet for “emergencies” (which rarely happen). I wasn’t going to give a crazy guy twenty bucks. Two steps later, I felt guilty and I gave him the line I always give. “I won’t give you money but I’ll buy you lunch, what would you like?” I urged him, “come on up with me and order what you want.” Oh, I knew he wouldn’t like ordering at the front anymore than Silvia (my cashier) wanted to take his order. But I wanted him to get what he wanted. He ordered, I ordered, then I paid.
I turned and started to sit close by until our food was ready. I saw the man sitting as far away from the register, close to the side doors, as possible. He was just waiting for his benefactor to deliver his food. I walked over to him and in my quirky mood and quest for carnitas, I asked him if I could join him for lunch. “Can I eat with you?” What was he going to say?
“Hi, I’m Glenn, what’s your name?” I asked. He said, “I’m Andy.” Poor guy, he just wanted to do his thing, eat his food and be left alone. But no, that wasn’t going to happen because I wanted something from him.
“So Andy, what’s your story?” I said, sounding like a swanky journalist covering the “needs of the street people” segment. Andy just looked back at me with a blank stare. I ignored Andy’s social cue as if he were saying, “really, you’re going to make me do this?”
Between bites of burrito I peppered him with questions about his life and life on the streets. It didn’t feel appropriate to ask him about being homeless because Andy was clearly a more savvy street guy. He wasn’t “homeless,” the streets are his home.
I said, “so are you from around here?” Which is supposed to be a question about being born and/or raised in Southern California. Andy again, just stared. I pushed, “Where were you born?” Andy replied, “I don’t really know or maybe I just don’t remember,” He was starting to get the hang of what it’s like to have a conversation with someone who is just naturally curious about people. I snapped back, “What? Are you serious? You don’t remember where you were raised?” I tried another line of inquiry, “What about your first memories of being a kid? Where was that?” “Oh, here in California,” he said with hesitation, “I think.” I changed the subject, and trying to sound socially cool, I said, “How long you been on the streets?” Andy gave me a straight answer on this one, “fifteen years.” My voice raised with unbelief, “No Way!” I said, challenging his honesty. “Yeah, its been fifteen years.” “Andy,” I retorted with delightful surprise, “You’re like a professional street guy, how in the world have you survived on he streets all these years?” He didn’t know how to answer that. It was a rhetorical compliment anyways. “How old are you by the way?”
Now, I need to tell you that Andy was pretty grimy from head to toe. He had on a 2007, Mount Olive Baptist T-Shirt and a beat up San Diego cap that just said, “SD.” His hands were absolutely stained with deep, dirty dirt to the point that his fingernails were black – but it wasn’t nail polish. He had a scruffy beard and a shaved head. All of that went along well with his cloud of stink, he reeked from nicotine. The strangest thing about him was his teeth. Andy’s teeth were just about the best lookin set of chompers I’d ever seen.
So when he said, “forty three,” I was floored. “Forty three!” I laughed back, (I’m sure he was tired of me repeating everything back to him with suspicion) “You are NOT a young man anymore! But you’ve got the nicest set of teeth I’ve ever seen!” With that said, Andy flashed a brilliant, disarming smile that instantly changed his entire demeanor. “You are a living miracle my friend,” I declared.
After a few minutes he continued eating his combo burrito meal and I discovered a little more about his family, his circumstances growing up (Utah Youth Authority and a stint in a Mexican Prison). The most fun fact was his nickname on the streets – Cynik. We laughed about his nickname. “How did you get that?” I asked. Through a smirky smile he said, “I don’t know, my friends just started calling me ćinico (Cynic), but I spell it with a K.” “Yeah,” I agreed, it sounds “more gansta with a K.”
Just in case you think I was just taking advantage of Andy or making light of his story – that’s not it at all. I was honestly interested in how Andy makes life happen on the streets and I bartered a few minutes of his time and his story for a combo burrito, large fries and drink. BTW, he mixed Iced Tea with Sprite! I enjoyed my lunch with Andy. I asked permission to take a picture with him. He agreed. The first picture I said, “ok, smile Andy,” thinking he’d flash those winning teeth again. Then I said, “come on Andy, really smile.” And that’s when I got the second picture. Both of them look like he’s in pain, but I promise he’s not in pain. We had a great lunch and I made a friend.