Driving back to college is always an adventure. The car is filled to maximum capacity with more clothes, more shoes, more books, and in my case, more instruments than you left with. And sitting alone while you are knowingly driving yourself away from your home and your family (no matter how dysfunctional they are) never feels right. Playing a good album is always a nice distraction, but no matter how loud you play it, it’s never loud enough to quiet your often contradicting thoughts of leaving behind the people you know to return to a place that still may be unfamiliar, yet at the same time, liberating.
So as I drove back to school this past Sunday, my mind was racing. Eager to return to my small apartment and have peace and quiet-quite the contrary to the noisy and chaotic nature of my home at my grandparent’s- I passed cars on the highway and watched the vivid blue sky pass overhead, while the sun warmed the car, despite the chilly temperature. Returning to the small, almost rural town I live in while at school was something I looked forward to after being in a more urban area for the winter break. Daydreaming about my new classes like Women Images and Realities, What Causes Cancer? and Human Biology brought a smile to my face. But slowly, as I got farther from home and closer to my own apartment, I realized new classes meant a whole new group of people to meet and try and make friends with. Loneliness crept up over me as I realized I’d be on my own again, despite having a roommate. I’d have to manage my own life again independently, and nerves began to gnaw at my stomach about whether or not I would be able to make this semester a holistic experience rather than a goal-reaching, linear one.
But as I turned off the highway and waited at a stoplight, the reality hit me in the face. I could no longer escape it. I had arrived. There was no turning back. The light turned green and right before I made my turn, I caught sight of a guy standing on the side of the road. In only a glimpse, I could tell he was a younger guy, maybe in his twenties, dressed warmly in a red hat and winter coat with a thick brown beard. He held a sign written on a piece of cardboard that said he was homeless and hungry.
Immediately, my thoughts had turned from being consumed with my life, my feelings, and my college experience, to the possible reality of this man’s life. When I was younger, my dad told me of times when he witnessed people asking for money because they were “homeless,” yet at the end of the night, would hop into a shiny new car. Not wanting to be scammed, I became skeptical of people who so obviously asked for help. Of course I wanted to help, but afraid of falling for a con artist’s scam, I usually passed these people by. I reasoned that if they really needed help, they’d know where to go (even though I don’t know where that would be) and that someone else would of course try and help. It just wouldn’t be me.
Continuing toward my apartment however, a feeling of empowerment washed over me: I had the ability to help this guy. No one could tell me to just keep driving or convince me he was a crook or to ignore the strings he had tugged at my heart. I wanted to help, but of course, I was scared. Arriving at my apartment, I unpacked my car, and began debating in my head. What if he is a crook? What if I try to help and he’s mean? What if he tries to take advantage of me? But on the other hand, What if he’s a good guy who’s had some tough breaks? What if you bring him a sandwich and you bring a smile to his face? What if somehow, by your small effort, you restore his faith in humanity, even a tiny bit?
Choosing to believe that this man really needed help, the possibility of changing his day-and even his life- seemed too important to pass up. It made my heart beat a little faster. It made me feel more alive. I decided to go back and see if he was still on the side of the road. If he was, I’d bring him a sandwich (I figured this would be better than money, especially if he was a con artist). If he wasn’t there, well…then I guess I wouldn’t. But I refused to entertain the possibility of his not being there. I hopped back in my car and drove back up the road to where I saw him, fantasizing about being the hero of the day. I could be the one person that showed this guy that he mattered and that someone cared about him. I couldn’t wait. I passed by where he had been standing, holding my breath.
But he wasn’t there.
My daydreams came to a screeching halt and suddenly deflated, I made a U-turn and returned back to my rinky-dink apartment to unpack my things. Again, I found myself reasoning in my head. You waited too long. He needed help when you passed the first time, not twenty minutes later when you finally got the courage. But then I thought, It’s the thought that counts. Shaking my head, I concluded, No it’s not. Your thought didn’t get that guy a sandwich when he needed it.
Maybe I was being selfish. Maybe it was my burning desire to be a hero. Maybe it was the unknown of what my day could be if I met this man. Maybe I just wanted to be the person to help. Maybe it was the sense of independence it gave me. Maybe it was my realization that this guy had a story to tell, just like you and me, and I wanted to be a part of it. But I had waited too long and he had left, either because someone helped him out or because he became too discouraged to stand out there any longer. I really hope it’s the former.
I wish I could find him and tell him I’m sorry I didn’t get there fast enough. I wish I could tell him I was on the way to help. I wish I could tell him he helped me realize that sure, college is scary and there are lots of new and unfamiliar things, but it’s not the only thing in the world that matters. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to get this education and I should make the best of it in all respects, but it’s certainly not all there is to life. People and your relationships with them make life meaningful. It’s not always about yourself. I wish I could thank him, because now he is a part of my story.