A warm breeze curls around my face as I stroll down South University Avenue. The sidewalk bustles with college students, some undoubtedly headed to the same coffee shop where I’m meeting a friend. Ahead of me, an older black man hovers at the edge of the sidewalk. The line of pedestrians arcs around him, students locking eyes with their phones or stepping aside with apologetic head shakes.
Then, my turn. He waits until I’ve nearly passed before he murmurs, “Spare a dollar so a vet can eat?”
Since moving to Ann Arbor, I’ve encountered more panhandlers in two years than I’d seen in the preceding twenty-three. And every time, no matter how bedraggled or desperate they appear, I always truck right past. Like Josh, I shake my head: Sorry, man. Like Sabrina, some shriveled-up corner of my mind judges the mentholated stink of their breath and whispers, Hey, at least you didn’t feed their nasty habit. Like Catherine, I wear my guilt in the threads of my low-quality and wholly unnecessary consignment shop sweater.
“Sure, man.” The words slip out into the breeze. I blink, and my brain scrambles to catch up. But my lips are still moving. “I’m on my way to meet a friend for coffee. They’ve probably got food, too. Let’s go pick something up.”
My face is very still. I can feel my cheeks frozen into a smile I hope is reassuring. The guy scuffs the toe of his sneaker against the concrete and looks away. He demurs. I insist.
And then we’re off down the sidewalk. I introduce myself as Jen, the name I give to baristas and online dates. His name is Ricky. He grew up in Ann Arbor and attended Pioneer High School with the now-sainted coach Jim Harbaugh. He spent seven years in and out of college for a culinary arts degree, though his career as a chef got interrupted by a stint of military service. I ask him about his favorite dish, and he replies, “Bouillabaisse,” with such confidence that I decide he’s not lying to impress me.
Before we reach the coffee shop, I duck into a sandwich joint instead. It’s new to me, and the Korean-fusion menu catches us both off-guard. I order a package of chips and we make small talk while the kitchen whips up his bulgogi beef sandwich. Ricky says he loves Ann Arbor because “there aren’t problems between whites and blacks.” I hope he’s right.
As we leave, the guy at the register asks if Ricky wants any sriracha for his sandwich. “No way,” he replies, “a good sandwich shouldn’t need extra sauce.” Since only one of us has been to culinary school, I defer to his judgment.
Outside, we shake hands. “People here are very generous,” he reassures me. Then we part ways.
Before writing this post, I hadn’t mentioned Ricky to anyone. I almost talked myself out of it, because I don’t want to pretend that a $7.50 sandwich earns me a “Good Deed!” badge and a one-way ticket to the moral high ground. In fact, I even got one-upped; as I was making Ricky my initial offer, a student pressed a $20 Starbucks gift card into his hand and said earnestly, “I think you need this more than I do.” All I did was buy an artsy, très Ann Arbor sandwich topped with pickled carrots—which, for all I know, Ricky didn’t even want—and spend eight minutes chatting with a stranger. The encounter didn’t change my life, and it almost certainly didn’t change his.
But it happened. For reasons I can’t quite pin down, my mouth sprang open before my brain could lock it shut. And I have a niggling feeling it might just happen again.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.