It was August in Tempe, Arizona.
Who wouldn’t be tempted by an ice cream cone?
I wrestled the nozzle back into its holster and glanced at the $43.00 on the gas pump display. The convenience store was close to the conference center, so filling up over lunch would save travel time tomorrow. It’s a long drive back to Long Beach. And I’d still be able to join my new friends for our last lunch together. We bonded tightly over the three-day speakers’ conference.
As I turned to open the car door, my weakness peered at me from above the convenience store entrance — a delicious, sexy, vanilla swirl ice cream cone adorned with a 49 cent price tag. I knew better, but I couldn’t help myself. I approached my temptation.
Just steps from the entry, a voice spoke to me, “You’ll feel better without it. But while you’re here, you might as well use the bathroom.” I don’t always listen to these annoying nudges. I really wanted that cone! But the clarity of that message was enough to redirect my will. So I walked in, turned left, away from the counter service, and found the men’s room at the end of the aisle. Opening the door, I passed behind a guy at the sink. Leaning forward, he stared at his reflection while he picked at his face. Something was off and it was a little unnerving. He remained in that position, fidgeting, until I had washed my hands and passed behind him again to leave. As I reached for the door handle, he leaned back from the mirror, turned toward me and asked,
When I got to this part of the story with my wife, she freaked. And I get it. Looking back, I suppose a natural reaction could have been terror, wondering if he were setting me up to test that theory with his hands around my neck. But that reaction didn’t enter my being. He was young and looked worn and rough, but his eyes were kind. There was no danger there. It was awkward, for sure, but more than that, he stirred in me a combination of confusion and curiosity. It was like walking into the a locker room filled only with members of the opposite sex who don’t appear the least bit surprised to see you. Time stood still for a few seconds while I processed the encounter and pondered his question. Finally, I responded honestly, “No. I don’t think I could.” With that, I gave a subtle nod to announce my exit and walked out.
As I passed through the store I may have looked normal on the outside, but on the inside, I was stirred up. Not with fear or distress. There was something about him that entered me, that moved my heart, that compelled me to not shake this off so quickly. I couldn’t let it go. Halfway to my car I stopped and turned around.
When I opened the door to the men’s room this time, he immediately faced me and I drew him in with my words.
In that moment, this felt like profound truth to me. He went on to say that he had tried to share this with a man on a bus, but the man shut him down. Pressing his finger to his lips, he calmly, sadly reenacted the dismissal and stern warning, “No! Shhhhhhhhhh,” as if quieting a rowdy child in church. I asked him if he was struggling with addiction, if he was talking about himself. He didn’t hesitate. “Yes. I came in here to get high.” He was quiet. And calm. And alone.
In an instant, I understood. Not with my head. Rather, I felt a rush of visceral understanding. My heart knew. My body knew. My entire being was flush with knowing. This was isolation and pain in the flesh. Quiet, non-violent desperation for someone, anyone, to understand. To acknowledge. To care, just a little. To connect, even for a moment. Our simple exchange started a twenty-minute conversation. We continued outside in the shade of the overhang by the front door.
People pumped gas and came and went. He looked a bit rough with battle scars from sleeping on pavement, scraped elbows and sores on his face. He was coherent but still under the influence. It took time for him to process his thoughts. But I didn’t care about any of that. Not his look. Not his speech. Not the public display of our contrast. It was just the two of us. The rest of the world was on hold.
We had no agenda. He asked for nothing, and I couldn’t think of anything to offer but my presence. I asked his name, then offered mine in response, extending my hand, “Nice to meet you, Noah, I’m Carl.” With that touch came a flood of emotion. The thought passed that he must be close in age to my own son, 29 this year.
I asked about his life, and he openly shared. There was no embarrassment, just stark reality. He was 14 when he took his first drink. His addiction escalated to drugs. At 19, his mother died. His father offers no support now. I asked if he had a home. It didn’t register. So I asked him where he slept last night. “Oh, fortunately I was sober last night. I slept outside.” I didn’t understand the connection and I didn’t ask, but I’m sure he slept outside. And I’m sure they’re somehow connected. There was deep thinking inside that fog. It struggled to get out. So I came at it a different way.
My emotions welled up as the truth of his life sank in. This young, addicted man has a sweet spirit and no home. Whatever got him to this point didn’t matter in that moment. The only thing that mattered was his utter lack of hope. I felt powerfully connected to him, but powerless to help in any other tangible, practical way.
I broke our gaze, looked down, and noticed for the first time, his clean, light blue tee shirt. It had bold white graphics with the name of a Christian organization at the top. I asked him about the shirt and if he had anyone to support him. The shirt came from an older gentleman who is a member of the group displayed on it. He referred to him kindly, but said he lives out of the area. I could feel their connection by the way he spoke of him, and my emotions surged and bubbled over. I looked in his eyes and patted my heart. It’s all I could do. Tears were forming and I couldn’t speak. He leaned in and hugged me. I thanked him. He thanked me. We clasped each other’s hands and I wished him blessings and healing. He left me changed. And I left him with the only thing I could think to give. The connection we created for each other through our presence and brief time together.