A homeless person sleeping on a park bench

When you work for a living your life develops a certain rhythm. You make breakfast a certain way, you reach the subway by a certain path, you begin to notice the same faces on the platform.

I bring it up because there’s a man I meet almost every day in my local coffee shop.  He works behind the counter most mornings.

I noticed him long ago because he’s older than the other twenty-somethings he works alongside. If I had to guess I would say he’s in his late fifties.

He’s African American and wire thin but he has a sturdy frame. He’s notably more agile than most men his age, I guess.

No matter what day it is, or what time, or what the weather’s like, he’s unfailingly courteous and kind to everyone who comes into the place. He smiles at people. He makes them pay attention to themselves and the world around them. This takes some resolve, I imagine.

In America there are people willing to go to war over receiving the wrong doughnut. Defusing such people requires skill. Good behavior, good manners, are contagious I’ve discovered.

I have watched this particular barista defuse the bad attitude of some of the most recalcitrant men and women in the city. He enjoys people. They pick up on it.

Recently I was catching a train at Penn Station. I had to make an early morning connection so I arrived at 5 a.m. and there he was, my good mannered barista, sleeping rough on a public bench. Work was only a block away.

I don’t know how long he’s been homeless, but he clearly is. I don’t know how he holds down a job and lives a life that hard.

What’s miraculous to me is how kind he is, consistently, when you consider most people in his predicament might grow embittered or despairing.

He was still sleeping when I saw him, or at least I hope he was. I imagined he wouldn’t want to be (what’s the right word here – discovered? caught?) Weirdly, I felt as if I had walked into a stranger’s house and had sat at their table. I felt like I was trespassing in a public space.

I wasn’t supposed to see this. I should go.

My train was at the other end of the station, so I breezed past. But I had had enough time to see him and to recognize him and to feel uncomfortable.

I was glad to have somewhere I was going and little time to reflect or decide what I felt about it.
Settling down on the train, I popped on my headphones and listened to music as the train sailed out of the concrete tunnels and into the leafy Connecticut landscape. Music soothes, so I let it.

At Stamford the train stopped and a businessman about the same age as the barista sat next to me without asking if the seat were free or wondering what I felt about it. He didn’t make eye contact. He was busy.

He opened his laptop and the screen was suddenly filled with his multicolored pie charts and sales graphs. I couldn’t help noticing the headings, which read: “List of client loans and their performance.”

Other headings read “Profit Margins,” “Pricing Strategies,” “Markups and Returns,” all the arcane language of commerce.

He set about pursuing the accounts that were underperforming. He began to fire off stark warning emails to the men and women who were failing in their obligations.

“Dear Mister M---, we must receive a deposit from you within 30 days or…” He typed without looking up once at the early morning landscape that was flying by.

I’m not sure if what you do influences who you eventually become, but I suspect it must do. You couldn’t really pick a greater contrast between these two men and what they did and who they have become.

One man was homeless and the other looked very comfortably off. One was so kind to total strangers that it broke your heart, and the other was pursuing debtors like a bulldog after a fire truck.

Which one had made the world a better place?

You can live your whole life caught up in struggles and ambition and striving and crass materialism. You can add immeasurably to the world’s economy and store of knowledge because of it.

But if you can’t find the inner decency of a man like that barista by the end of your days it won’t have mattered probably. I’m increasingly certain of that.