One day I was sitting at my Spot on the corner of Shattuck & Allston in Berkeley, California, leaning my back against the red brick wall of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, as usual. A young man approached, conversed with me casually for a few minutes, then asked me a question.
“You seem to be a pretty bright guy,” he began. “What is it about being on drugs that makes a person not want to eat?”
“Do you mean, physiologically?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Do they do something to the body that takes away the appetite?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I just asked a homeless guy across the street if he wanted a sandwich, and he said no.”
Something didn’t seem quite right. So I asked him: “Well, what drug do you think he was on?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know much about drugs.”
“Did he seem intoxicated?” I asked. “Or dopey? Or more like, spun? I mean, were his eyes darting around to and fro, back and forth? Did he seem paranoid?”
“No, none of those things.”
“Then how do you know he was on drugs?”
“Well, he must have been on drugs. Why else would he have turned down the sandwich?”
“Did it ever occur to you that he might not have been hungry?”
“Well, no I hadn’t thought of that.”
“How did he respond when you offered to give him a sandwich?”
“He just kinda smiled and said ‘No thank you.'”
“Well then, I would say, he simply wasn’t hungry. That’s all there is to it.”
“Yeah, but you guys are here suffering all the time, having a hard time finding food. Couldn’t he have just saved the sandwich for later?”
“I suppose he could have. But around here a person who isn’t hungry usually says no, in the expectation that you’ll go give somebody else the sandwich — someone who actually is hungry.”
“That’s what I did.”
“Good for you.”
I remember looking away and smiling at passersby, in what was I suppose a none-too-subtle way of conveying that it might be a good place to end the conversation.
“But it’s been bugging me,” he went on. “I felt like he wasn’t grateful. He should have been thankful. I mean, I was offering him food, wasn’t I?”
“Well, he smiled, didn’t he? He had probably just eaten something. But I’m interested in why you thought he was on drugs, when he didn’t particularly seem to be.”
“Aren’t homeless people on drugs?”
“Some,” I said slowly. “Not all.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “You don’t seem to be on drugs.”
“But that guy didn’t seem like he was on drugs either, right?”
“So how do you know I’m not on drugs?
“Good point,” he replied. “I guess I don’t.”
“Say, let me ask you something. Do you think that if a person is homeless, it must be because they’re a drug addict?”
“Well, isn’t that true?”
“No, not really. Homelessness and drug addiction are not synonymous, you know. There are drug addicts who live in big mansions, and there are people experiencing homelessness who have never used drugs in their lives.”
At around that point, he took out a dollar bill and tossed it in my hat.
“Thank you,” he said. “I think I just learned something.”
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