Two Tuesdays ago, it was my turn to get groceries. Matt and I set out from our church in Holyoke for the local Stop & Shop just a few miles down the road. While locking our bikes to the rack outside the store, we met a soft-spoken homeless man sitting on a nearby bench. As Matt and him got to talking, I heard the man mention he was with his brother, whose bicycle was stolen just the day before.
Before I could jump into the conversation, another nice man walked up to us. He introduced himself to me as Tony, complimented me on my bike, and sadly told me his had just been stolen. “You must be the brother we’re hearing about! I’m so sorry about your bike,” I said to him. He told me they were brothers in a way, but his real brother had died of AIDS from an infected needle in 2002. That just blew me away. I’ve grown up with a very privileged life; AIDS has always been something foreign, something I never thought would come up in a casual conversation.
I wanted to know more of Tony’s story, and he seemed more than happy to share. He told me about his new brother Billy, Matt’s friend on the bench, and how Billy took in Tony after his brother died. The two lived together in an apartment for a few years until Tony was the victim of a hit and run in 2006. He barely escaped with his life, having to get immediate surgery to correct four fractures in his spine and change out his hip for a stronger, titanium one. The hospital bills left Billy and Tony on the streets. They now slept in a tent a few blocks from the store, he told me, where he sleeps on that hip of his, on the ground.
I wished I had something to offer him other than the advice to put a pillow or soft jacket under his hip at night. I couldn’t help but smile when he asked me about what we were doing on bikes, and still had it in him to praise our team for what we’ve been doing all summer. I bid good-bye to Tony as Matt said his goodbyes as well. Matt’s face was as shocked as mine, and he told me that Billy used to be a small business owner in a nice town we had visited a few weeks earlier when he lost everything he had to his heroin addiction.
He was so happy the Holyoke mayor had implemented a needle exchange program in the city and also had nothing but thanks for what we were doing in Holyoke. Our grocery trip was filled with silence. We had just met two men with absolutely nothing but stories to share. What do you say to a man whose bad luck started with the death of his brother and is continuing with life in a tent?
Sometimes all you can do is lend an ear for his story, give him your empathy, and tell him you hope his day turns around. As Matt and I left the store 20 minutes later, we stared in awe at the most vibrant rainbow to ever touch the city of Holyoke, and our unusual grocery trip had come full circle.