Factoring in the wind chill, I knew the temperature was below zero. The bitter cold cut through my Californian sensibilities, as well as my enthusiasm as a tourist, so I ducked through the nearest door for warmth… and found myself in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.
I settled onto one of the public benches with a steaming cup of coffee — waiting for feeling to return to my fingers and toes — and relaxed to engage in some serious people-watching.
Several tables of diners spilled out into the great hall from the upscale American Restaurant, and heavenly aromas tempted me to consider an early dinner. I observed a man seated nearby and, from the longing in his eyes, realized that he, too, noticed the tantalizing food. His gaunt body, wind-chapped hands and tattered clothes nearly shouted, “Homeless, homeless!”
I wondered how long it had been since he had eaten.
Half expecting him to approach me for a handout, I almost welcomed such a plea. He never did. The longer I took in the scene, the crueler his plight seemed. My head and heart waged a silent war, the one telling me to mind my own business, the other urging a trip to the food court on his behalf.
While my internal debate raged on, a well-dressed young couple approached him. “Excuse me, sir,” the husband began. “My wife and I just finished eating, and our appetites weren’t as big as we thought. We hate to waste good food. Can you help us out and put this to use?” He extended a large Styrofoam container.
“God bless you both. Merry Christmas,” came the grateful reply.
Pleased, yet dismayed by my own lack of action, I continued to watch. The man scrutinized his newfound bounty, rearranged the soup crackers, inspected the club sandwich and stirred the salad dressing — obviously prolonging this miracle meal. Then, with a slow deliberateness, he lifted the soup lid and, cupping his hands around the steaming warm bowl, inhaled. At last, he unwrapped the plastic spoon, filled it to overflowing, lifted it toward his mouth and — with a suddenness that stunned me — stopped short.
I turned my head to follow his narrow-eyed gaze.
Entering the hall and shuffling in our direction was a new arrival. Hatless and gloveless, the elderly man was clad in lightweight pants, a threadbare jacket and open shoes. His hands were raw, and his face had a bluish tint. I wasn’t alone in gasping aloud at this sad sight, but my needy neighbor was the only one doing anything about it.
Setting aside his meal, he leaped up and guided the elderly man to an adjacent seat. He took his icy hands and rubbed them briskly in his own. With a final tenderness, he draped his worn jacket over the older man’s shoulders.
“Pop, my name’s Jack,” he said, “and one of God’s angels brought me this meal. I just finished eating and hate to waste good food. Can you help me out?”
He placed the still-warm bowl of soup in the stranger’s hands without waiting for an answer. But he got one.
“Sure, son, but only if you go halfway with me on that sandwich. It’s too much for a man my age.”
It wasn’t easy making my way to the food court with tears blurring my vision, but I soon returned with large containers of coffee and a big assortment of pastries. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but…”
I left Union Station that day feeling warmer than I had ever thought possible.