I saw this shape pass in front of my office window.
I hurried over to the door and yelled down the street. "Hey!"
He turned back.
"Don't walk in the flower beds. Use the sidewalk please!"
He started towards me with this familiar smile.
I cut him off with a polite thank you before he could start a conversation and shut the door.
Two hours later, the rain started to fall.
He came blustering into my office.
His hair was shoulder length and matted. He was unshaven, but it only looked like maybe two days growth. He still had his teeth. His coat, face, and hands had a layer of dirt and his face had that leathery look you get when you live outside. He looked to be about 40. But really, he could have been 30. Who knows. He stood about 5 ft 10 inches. Average build. He was handsome. His body had the quality of being a former jock in another lifetime.
He asked, "Where's the music you usually have going?"
I lied. "What music?"
I always turn off the music when a customer comes into the office so I can focus. He wasn't a customer though. He had never been in the office. How did he know about the music? I immediately thought about the flower beds just in front of my office window.
He began to speak as though we were longtime friends and as though we had spoken together many times before.
I attempted to keep my face completely neutral and said, "I don't remember you."
He became flustered.
He said, "Do you have any coffee or a lighter?"
I said no.
He asked if he could use the restroom. I told him to go right ahead.
When he came out of the bathroom he continued to try and make small talk. I'd record it here, but I didn't understand it honestly. Just imagine a lot of nonsensical small talk.
I just stared at him with a neutral look. Not caring, not condemning. I was behind my desk. He was a human being and I refused to humiliate him by reacting to him with any sort of fear, but I did think about how we were the only ones in the office.
Suddenly he said, "Can I have a hug?"
It was incredibly difficult for him to say it. His eyes begged me to hear him. I thought of all the healing that a hug can offer. I thought of how alone he must feel.
I sat safely in my seat behind my big marble desk and thought about his needs.
But I didn't move.
I didn't catalog my own needs and his needs were clear, but I just couldn't cross that threshold.
I looked him in the eyes and said in a clear soft voice, "Why? Tell me why you need a hug."
He floundered for the words, "Because it's Christmas."
"It's not Christmas. It's April 1st. Why?"
He tried to smile like a sheepish little boy and make a joke. I kept my face serious.
"Why did you let it get so bad?"
His face softened into a kind of seriousness, but he didn't answer.
Finally he smiled, "You need a hug more than I do."
I responded, "Everyone needs hugs. I know why I need one. Why do you need one? Words are important. You want a hug--give me words."
He begins to describe with his body language and his words a need to be held like a baby. I understood what he was saying, and I came very close to giving into his request.
Then I heard it.
I used it as an escape from granting his request.
"The water is running. Turn it off."
He looked at me.
"Turn off the water."
He walked away from the desk. For a moment, I thought he was going to just go out the door and leave without a word, but he headed past the door to the restrooms. There are two. The men's and women's. Instead of going to the men's restroom where he left the water running, he headed to the women's restroom and turned on the large spigot over the mop bucket.
I realized he was using this as a means to get me out from behind my desk. But I had no choice.
I left the desk and walked to the restrooms, but I made sure I had my phone with me. If I needed to, I could speed dial the police. I turned off the sink in the men's bathroom, and managed to push past him into the women's restroom to shut off the larger spigot before the mop bucket overflowed.
I was incensed by this little bit of anarchy. It undid the puppy dog eyes and the sincerity in his request. I realized that couched in his need for human contact was a much baser need to just rub up against some boobs. And even though his need for intimacy was real--my need for distance and safety was just as real. I decided that it was all right to embrace an ethic of selfishness in that moment and I put my needs ahead of his. For many, this answer might have been obvious--but I'm a militant people pleaser. I have this stupidly courageous need to see how I can please the world at my own expense. Choosing my needs over his was a difficult thing to do.
Until I heard the water running.
He left without any ceremony and if there was conversation, I don't remember it.
I imagined what good I could have done, had I allowed him to hug me. But honestly, I think he would have taken more from me than I could have given to him.
After he left, I replayed the situation over and over.
I have three core values, Faith, Courage, Compassion.
I feel like my choice to leave that man without a hug demonstrated neither faith, courage, or compassion. I hate to live outside of my own value system, but I must have faith that I don't need to sacrifice my own well being to save this man. I must have courage to protect my own needs. I must have compassion for myself.
This is my story about the stranger in the flowerbed.