By John Starks
For the past year and a half I’ve been living in Midtown Kansas City. During that time I’ve had assorted interactions with people surviving on the streets in that area. Very few of those interactions have been negative. Sometimes when people having a hard time ask for money, I give. Sometimes I don’t, it depends on a hundred different factors and I’d never claim to be the perfect citizen. However, on one occasion I was moved to consider something besides to give or not to give.
As I was settling into my new neighborhood, I would see one particular guy out on the street a lot, especially in the summer. He’d be walking up and down a major thoroughfare, panhandling outside fast food places, or catching some z’s in the shade. Usually, he wore no shirt or shoes.
One morning before work I was waiting in line at a drive through fast food place right next to my apartment. Not far from the window, this guy was sort of crouched against the building panhandling. My immediate reaction was to feel defensive; I felt it was a boldfaced strategy. At the same time, his manner was fairly passive. When I pulled up to where he sat, I rolled down my window and gave 50 cents or a dollar, nothing much. There was a pause and I waited for my food to come out, I was thinking to myself, I don’t know anything about this guy.
“What’s your name,” I asked.
“Jacob,” the guy said. (I changed his name for this story)
“My name’s John,” I said, and shook his hand.
“You know, this truck’ll last you a long time,” Jacob said. “These smaller ones hold up better than those big ones.” And from there we talked about my dad’s truck which I was borrowing, killing the time in a friendly manner. I didn’t give him a whole lot to survive off of financially, but what we both gained out of the interaction was a bit more relationship, a connection with another person in the neighborhood.
It’s easy to feel disconnected from people in the city with all the random interactions we have with strangers we probably won’t see again. Especially this time of year, connection can mean a lot for someone struggling. “What’s your name” is a simple question that sparks connection.
I talked with Jacob once or twice after that. The first time he didn’t recall me which is understandable. Now that the colder months are rolling in I hardly see him out there, but I haven’t forgotten the few simple interactions we had. I still don’t really know that much about him. I don’t know where he’s from, or what his family is like if he has one, or what the story of his life is all about. But I do at least recognize him as a person with a name. The last time I saw him, my girlfriend and I stopped at a somewhat seedy gas station nearby and he was outside.
I said to her, “you see that guy over there?”
“Yeah? Who is he?”
“His name is Jacob.”