I first saw him on the street corner that frigid Sunday night in December.
My friends and I were leaving a finely-established restaurant in the downtown area, bundled in the coziness of thick jackets and warmed by hearty laughter, and enjoying the atmosphere of the holiday season. Our stomachs were full of good food and our wallets were full of cash for Christmas shopping. We strode from the restaurant to our parked cars, each one parked parallel to the sidewalk beside a meter. We were delighted by the brightness and cheer of the downtown displays and lights, brightly illuminated for the holiday season.
Delicate snowflakes floated like tiny crystals from the darkened stars above. Our laughter mingled in harmony with the chimes of Christmas music that danced on the frosty air, and several of us sang along with the familiar choruses. Busy shoppers bustled back and forth with packages under their arms and festive scarves embraced around their necks. Small crowds gathered here and there in front of the stores to window shop, pointing out their favorite objects to loved ones and admiring the colorful decorations.
Small children, bundled snugly in their own innocence, gaped with excitement at the wondrous toys that sat behind each frosty windowpane. It seemed as though the whole world must be enveloped in this cozy little realm of joy. And then I saw him.
He bore no packages or presents, nor was he accompanied by any friends. His jacket was too small for his arms, and judging by its tattered appearance I imagined it offered very little warmth or comfort. His face was homely and wrinkled, and overgrown with a scraggly beard. His jeans were faded and had begun to tear in several spots, and his hair was shaggy and unkempt. He was sitting on the concrete sidewalk, leaning against a brick wall, with his arms wrapped around himself. His breath heaved like fog into the crisp night as he gasped for warmth.
I met his eyes for but a moment, and in those gray pools I saw a lifetime of hurt and misery. He had no home, no loved ones. The cheer of the season was lost on him as he huddled miserably there in the dark corner. He had no one to buy for, and no place to go. This was all he had.
In that passing moment I saw a dying gleam in his dim eyes; an expired hope that just one person would show him some kindness. I wondered how many people passed him by every day without even casting a glance. Of the hundreds of people who walked these streets, each person with a heart capable of loving, not one person could even acknowledge his existence with an act of consideration. Yet still he clung to the desperate hope that someone - anyone - would help him. But no one did. They paid more attention to the electronic lights and artificial displays than they did a living human being.
I could have been that person. I could have been the one out of hundreds who showed compassion on the man. I could have made a difference. I could have changed his life. But I didn't.
I flashed my eyes away from the dismal sight and stuffed it to the furthest region of my mind, and into the vault of the past. We climbed into our cars and cranked up the heat, and within two minutes the misery of the man was forgotten. Our group headed to a friend's home for coffee and cocoa, and my night went on as though he did not exist. I enjoyed a pleasent evening in the company of loved ones, full of laughter and cheer. Then I returned home to a comfortable night's sleep in my warm bed.
But the man enjoyed no such evening. He sat out there all night by himself in the freezing cold, his empty stomach rumbling, with no place to go and no one to care. His bed was the stiff brick wall he slouched against, and his blanket was one of snow that amassed upon him.
Who knows what thoughts swirled through his mind as he struggled to find sleep. Who knows what unfulfilled dreams haunted him as he shivered alone in the dark street. Maybe he had always wanted to be a great athlete or famous actor. Maybe he had an artistic desire to sing or write books. Maybe he always dreamed of getting married, settling down, and starting a family. Maybe he even had his first child's name already picked out.
Or perhaps his dreams were the things we take for granted: that one person to call "friend" or that one place to call "home". While the rest of us dream of success and luxury, maybe his dream was the simple pleasure of having one person to care for him, or the humble desire of a roof above his head. Maybe his greatest wish or deepest longing was the innocent, everyday pleasures that we do not give a second thought. His entire fantasy could have been the little things that we hardly count amongst our blessings.
He spent that night alone, utterly alone, in the freezing heart of the city. He was left to the wrath of nature like an animal while I slept on my soft mattress and fluffy pillow with sugarplums dancing through my head.
When I woke the next morning, the man had still not crossed my mind. I did not remember him as I buttoned my shirt and fixed my tie, nor as I threw on my coat and drove downtown to work. I left home twenty minutes early to allow time for a visit to the coffee shop in downtown, where a steaming cup of caffeine and a warm bagel with cream cheese awaited me; the perfect way to begin the morning before facing Monday. I parked my car, paid the meter, and headed towards the shop at the corner.
The morning air was crisp and sharp and stung my cheeks. Snow had ceased falling from the previous evening; it had been cleared from the street and was piled in lumpy snowbanks along the curbs. Pools of ice glistened along the sidewalk, and I was careful to watch my step as I made my way to the coffee shop from my parking spot. A newspaper was tucked under my arm, waiting to be read. Cars and taxis whistled and beeped from the street, stop lights blinked on and off, and other pedestrians strolled by as they began a new day.
Suddenly the sound of nearby sirens caught my attention. I froze for a moment, listening, as their buzzing melody cut through the cold air like a knife through ice. A spark of curiosity ignited in my mind, but the steaming coffee and soft bagels called to me from the cozy little shop. A customer exited, allowing the door to remain open just long enough for the aroma of warmth and fresh goods to escape into the streets and waft by me. My stomach grumbled. But the sirens continued, and my curiosity overpowered the warm sanctuary of the coffee shop.
I followed the screeching sirens to a parked ambulance less than a block away, very near to the restaurant we had dined at the previous evening. A small crowd had amassed around the ambulance, and I pushed my way through to see what had caused such a stir.
Recognition jolted my mind as I beheld the victim the EMT's were hoisting up on a stretcher. It was the man. His face was contorted in a frozen lock of suffering and his joints were bent and stiff. Looking into his eyes was like gazing into the dark, freezing ocean of the arctic, and they were clouded over in death. Tiny, stiffened icicles hung from his nostrils and his face was discolored in a blue hue. Snow was matted in clumps through his gravelly beard and iced along his eyelids. Every part of him was chilled frozen. His lifeless body was like a hollow ice cube with nothing to it but a raw shell of frost. His every trouble and every sorrow was lost upon the black face of death.
I stood there for a long moment until the stiff corpse was loaded into the ambulance, and the ambulance drove off. The driver did not bother to turn the sirens back on, or even flash his lights. All they carried was a frozen pile of lifeless flesh, now good for nothing more than keeping the workers at the morgue busy. The crowd dispersed and the onlookers went back to their normal lives. But I stood there, gazing at the spot against the brick wall from where they had removed his body. It was at the same spot where I had passed him the previous evening.
I thought about the man, and about everything I had not done. I thought about what no one had done. In a city of people, in a sea of souls, there was not one heart. All that man may have needed was one person to help him. But I didn't. No one did. Now another soul had passed from the world, his voice unheard, his dreams lost and abandoned forever within the lonely void of his mind. Who knows how his thoughts or ideas could have changed the world were they ever expressed to someone who would actually listen. Who knows what difference he could have made in someone's life had someone made a difference in his.
I wonder if he knew what it felt like to look into the eyes of a friend and know that he was cherished. I wonder if he understood that there were people in this world who stuck together closer than brothers instead of shrugging a cold shoulder to the misfortune of others. Before his body was frozen to death by the loneliness of the night, I wonder if he knew what it felt like to be loved. I could have shown him what love is. I could have made a difference. I could have changed his life. I could have saved him. But I didn't.
I first saw him on the street corner that frigid Sunday night in December.