My daughter Talee had severe panic attacks in fourth grade and couldn’t go to school for weeks. One thing I worried about (among many others), was that I didn’t want anxiety to define her. There was so much more to her than that. I didn’t want her to crumble under the label of panic.
I was concerned that other people would have misconceptions of my little girl. I worried some kids might tease her, or not want to play with her because she was different. I imagined parents thinking, “What’s wrong with that girl? Why don’t her parents force her to go to school?” And I didn’t think Talee’s teacher would understand why Talee couldn’t simply walk into the classroom. They had no idea how great our struggles were.
It’s human nature to size someone up during a first impression. To think the worst, based on outward appearances. To discriminate, without knowing the facts. Or to judge a person without even meeting him, like I did once.
It was when we were about to purchase our business. My husband said he had something to warn me about.
“I think everything’s fine, Honey. It’s just that a guy, a homeless guy, lives in the storage room.”
“What?” I wondered if I heard him right. “Does he have to stay?”
“Yeah. He’s lived there for fifteen years, he kind of comes with the place. He cleans, so we don’t need to hire a janitor. His name’s Charlie.”
“Is he okay, I mean, is he normal?”
“He’s fine,” my husband said. “I’ve talked to him, and he’s nice. He’s maybe early to mid 70s. The previous owner said he works hard.”
I don’t like to admit this. But I had a picture of what I thought this homeless man would look like. Dirty and disheveled. Unshaven, with scraggly, ratty hair. And an odor emanating from him of alcohol and cigarettes.
The first time I visited the store, Charlie wasn’t there. I was curious to see where he slept. My husband unlocked the door to the back room. I peeked inside. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the dim light. Spare parts, tools, and mops littered the room. I felt invasive, like I was sneaking into someone’s personal space. I was.
My husband pointed to a tiny area. “That’s where he sleeps. He puts a bunch of blankets and a sleeping bag down. I’m not sure if he has a pillow.”
I stared at the space, which was no larger than 3’x6.’ It was sandwiched between the hot water heater and a wall of dusty shelves. Charlie slept on the cold, hard, cement floor. At the foot of the makeshift bed, there was a wood desk, chair, and a small TV. A mirror hung next to the breaker box. A comb and razor were on one shelf, and books lined up, tallest to shortest, on another. Many of them were self help books, on positive thinking and power of the mind.
I met Charlie a week later. I was shocked. His healthy, rosy face was clean shaven. It looked like he just got back from the barber, with his gray hair styled short and neat. A striped buttoned down shirt was tucked into his navy slacks. His voice was gentle and kind. He told me I have a beautiful smile.
So much for stereotypes. I felt ashamed that I judged him. In a way, it paralleled my situation with Talee. I didn’t want people to think negatively of us, because they didn’t understand what we were going through. But I did the exact same thing to Charlie. I labeled him, and figured he’d fit into my narrow perception of a homeless person. He didn’t.
This man could’ve been anyone’s dad or grandpa. Charlie had a life, and he was quite social. He took the bus all over town, to the book store and restaurants. He met friends for coffee and doughnuts.
Charlie had family about half an hour away, and he was welcome to stay there. He chose not to, as he wanted his independence. He was close to our customers, they were his friends. For Charlie, our business was the equivalent of a friendly neighborhood.
As the months went by, I never told Charlie that he was teaching me an invaluable lesson. Not to judge someone based on what they look like or how they live.
Common misconceptions are just that. MISconceptions.
Charlie had a productive life prior to becoming homeless. He encountered difficulties that led him to his situation. The challenges he faced didn’t lessen the fact that he was a wonderful human being who contributed much to society.
I’m thankful Charlie lived in our storage room. Because of him, I’m more compassionate and aware of other’s hardships. I’m hopeful that many people will gain this insight, and view children like Talee and those with mental illnesses or other challenges, with openness and caring.
My only regret about Charlie is that I wish I would’ve known him longer. About six months after working for us, he caught pneumonia. He went to live with his son. Soon after, Charlie passed away.
I’ll always remember the priceless lessons that Charlie unknowingly gave me.
And that he said I had a beautiful smile.
Image courtesy of: http://www.mollaeilaw.com/blog/5-misconceptions-about-law