Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover
After three full days of work, National Geographic decided to give the interns a day off. Although I’ve had the time of my life so far, I wasn’t going to complain about a day off. I decided to book a tour of the United States Capitol to fulfill my nerdy obsession with politics and Capitol Hill.
On Friday morning, I dressed in my nicest shirt and pants, doused myself in my best cologne and even put some gel in my hair. I looked out the window of my primmed Georgetown house and noticed a light rainfall, so I threw on my rain jacket as I headed out the door.
Five minutes into my 35-minute walk, it began to downpour. My rain jacket only protected me for about five minutes before the rain soaked through and saturated everything I was wearing. I stopped into a local CVS and bought an umbrella, but by that time it was too late.
I decided to grab some Jimmy Johns right down the street from the White House before making my final trek to the Capitol. I was tired, wet and depressed thinking that all the Senators, Representatives, journalists and everyone else would see me looking sopped. I was dampened in more ways than one.
After ordering my sandwich, I squeezed into a tight table-bar next to a window and set my soggy umbrella on the stool next to me so no one would attempt to sit down.
But someone did.
His name was Ron. A gangly man with matted, fading red hair and a white beard that connected to his chest hair. He was wearing a NASCAR hat. I hate NASCAR.
“Can I sit next to you?” he said with a crazed grin on his face.
I’d never been put in this position. No one had ever asked to sit directly next to me when I’d purposely placed something on the seat next to me.
I told him he could in a sort of reluctant way. He happily sat down and started talking with me.
“Do you like NASCAR?”
“No, not really,” I said trying to avoid any and all communication with this grizzled man.
“Oh, I love NASCAR,” he said in an overly cheerful tone. “But all this rain got my NASCAR magazines wet.”
He stared out the window at the downpour. Then he proceeded to take some damp pieces of clothing and a NASCAR toy car from his backpack, and set them on the table next to his meal. Then it clicked to me. He’s homeless. Upon first look he looked homeless, but I didn’t assume he was since he had just ordered a Jimmy Johns sandwich. By the looks of it, he probably hadn’t had a good meal in weeks….or shower for that matter. As I thought about it, I could smell him. We were sitting less than a foot apart.
He took an enormous bite into his sandwich with the three front teeth he had. All I could think of was, “Why me?”
He forgot to fill his drink and left for a brief moment. I quickly scarfed down as much of my sandwich as I could. The shorter I had to sit next to this guy, the better.
He came back and asked what I was doing. I told him I was an intern at National Geographic. He was thrilled that I was keeping print “alive” and that I cared about the earth because most people my age didn’t.
I sort of just nodded my head and smiled as I continued eating as fast as possible, trying to ignore the stench.
After five minutes of talking, I asked him a little bit about himself. He said he’d been in D.C. since January and alluded to the fact that he got a lot of his meals and care from a local Presbyterian church near George Washington University. He didn’t outwardly admit he was homeless, but he kept mentioning the fact that “life was hard.”
As our conversation continued, I began to feel compassion for a man that I would normally dismiss as disgusting and a creep. For the next half hour or so, we talked about everything from South Dakota to the Civil War. I was intrigued at his vast knowledge about history and economics.
He began telling me a little bit about his past and how he’d been all over the country, working on cars, doing work in the oil industry and traveling.
And then, out of nowhere, he looked at me and said, “You remind me of my son. He’s about your age…wants to join the military but that sure scares his daddy.” He told me he had three kids, ranging from 19 to 23. As we were talking about his kids he just stopped and blankly stared out the window. I just looked at him and a tear welled up in my eye.
I can’t imagine my father being homeless and living on the streets of Washington D.C. He looked at his NASCAR toy and half smiled at me.
It was about time for me to get going to the Capitol and I asked him if he needed anything else to eat. I felt that was the least I could do for him. He sort of grunted and I could tell he didn’t want me to think he was a sympathy case. I told him how much I appreciated our conversation and asked him if he’d at least like a bag of chips or a cookie. He agreed to the chips – BBQ chips to be exact. There was a twinkle in his eye when I brought them over. I bid Ron farewell and told him I hoped I’d run into him again in the near future. And that was the truth.
As I made my way to the Capitol, I grinned. We get so caught up in life sometimes that we forget how lucky we are to have great jobs, the cool “toys” and loving family and friends. When I walked into Jimmy Johns, I thought my entire day was ruined because I was sopping wet. Ron’s life was sopping wet – his cherished magazines, his toy car and every piece of clothing he owned. He didn’t complain and was just happy to be eating a sandwich in Jimmy Johns.
I hope I was able to brighten his rainy day just as much as he brightened mine. Sometimes I wonder about chance encounters like this one. I feel like this was a sign from God telling me that my life could be a lot worse… and to “love one another” no matter how odd they look, act or smell.
I will never forget Ron and I truly hope I do run into him again in the future. If I do, I hope I can buy him more than a bag of chips. He made me rethink the way I think about life and other people. Like many people who have comfortable lives, I judge others more often than I should. I was always told, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Ron proved that idiom.