On a recent afternoon, I went and ate at Burger King, the place where you can don an artificial crown and forget that the food there is intent on killing you. Outside, an older gentleman was ambling around the parking lot, picking up discarded cigarettes. I watched as he found about half of a full cigarette, brushed it off and carefully lit it. I could see the glint of satisfaction in his face as he inhaled deeply. Inside, the workers casually ignored everything except their immediate tasks; homelessness obviously was a constant backdrop for them. Discarded cigarettes are their manna from Heaven.
As I took a bite of my delicious burger, I watched him walk up toward the obscured end wall of the restaurant and place a couple more butts on the concrete table. My wife pointed out that someone else was out there. Using the reflecting wall glass behind me, I could see that another person was hunched against the wall, a younger man, head down, quietly mumbling to the older gentleman.
I ate my meal, savoring the french fries and the hardening of my arteries. It was a beautiful day in so many different ways and I couldn’t help but wonder what might comprise the average day of the gentleman outside collecting discarded cigarettes. I didn’t feel sorry for him or guilty for enjoying the guilty pleasure of a Burger King burger. I was certain that the warm November weather was a gift for him, one he was appreciating on such a day.
When I left, I made sure to exit using the door closest to the two men outside. I handed the older of the two a ten-dollar bill and said, “Have a great day!” and smiled as I walked away. The older man’s face lit up and he replied, “Thank you so much, sir.” I could hear the tenor of his voice rise as the unexpected gift he hadn’t solicited gave him a boost of happiness.
Even if but for a moment, we both felt uplifted. There was no hurry to get back to reality – life always comes back to slap us into alignment.
Later, somehow the story of the $10 gift came up.
One of the people with me interjected, “But you know what he probably did with that money, right?” She looked at me, anticipating everything except what I said.
“Yes, I hope he bought alcohol or drugs or five seconds of relief. I hope he wasted the money in the most superficial way possible. Imagine having no such choice in life.” I laughed.
“What did he do to deserve it?” she asked me.
I paused. “What have any of us done to deserve such great lives, free of the capricious whims of the universe?”
Once again, Burger King, a place to slowly poison oneself with delightful calories, opened its doors and reminded me that the weirdest lessons are repeated in the strangest places. It is possible that the man I rewarded for no reason had made a succession of poor choices, ones rooted in personal responsibility. It’s also possible that he found himself being tested and simply couldn’t keep up with body blows life had thrown his away.
As Jean-Luc Picard said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life “
Yet, we prance through life, simply and arrogantly fooling ourselves to think that if we press all the right buttons and pull the appropriate levers that we will never be the ones ambling around the detritus of other people’s lives, looking for any small comfort, no matter how harmful.