SOOO… I’m finally starting to see the light at the end of a long tunnel called the building season…’Til now, the oxygen has been pretty much consumed by continual work, pesky clients and needy family- all in all, par for the course. I am happy that things will slow down in a few months and I can relax a little… Not complaining, mind you; there are many unemployed people out there, and many sad stories…
I have time to share one with you right now- the shortened version…
A week ago, I drove to the local convenience store after dinner out and was getting out of the car when I caught a glimpse of motion to my left, in the shadows. I turned and saw a young guy, about 14 years old, walking in my direction. I did a classic double-take when I noticed that he was barefoot and naked from the waist up. He was wearing sweat pants and their blue color contrasted with his bare flesh in an almost ghostly fashion.
I was momentarily stunned… the outside temperature that night was approaching the upper 30’s and here was this kid looking like he was walking on the beach on a nice Summer day! I turned to him and said “Hey guy, don’t you know it’s Fall?”
He walked right by me, without even a glance… almost zombie-like. Surprised, confused, I proceeded into the store to buy the coffee creamer that had brought me there. Once inside, my confusion became concern and I could feel anxiety starting to overpower any complacency that I was trying to attach to the moment. What was going on here? Why didn’t the kid have the proper clothing? Was he on drugs? Was he in trouble of some type?
I’ll tell you, I have stuck my neck out for various people over the years and at times it was hazardous, at times it was rewarding, at times it was disheartening… This was all weighing on me heavily as I paid for the creamer and headed back out the door and into the cold, night air.
It is at times like this, my inner voice reminded me, that being human is more important than all of the concocted reasons you can devise for turning and leaving this boy to his own hell…
I glanced around the parking lot, right and left and spotted the youngster about 50 feet away, in the parking lot of an adjacent business; pacing slowly, nervously, in the darkness near a Salvation Army clothing drop-off box. He seemed to turn away when I spotted him and that was enough for me to then proceed to the car to leave…For the moment, that is…As I backed the car out of the lot I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and sadness…The questions started pounding my brain- “What if he was your kid…How can you leave him like this…What will happen to him…How are you going to go home to your heated home and live with yourself?”
I turned the car to the left and drove to the lot next door, stopped, rolled the window down and asked the boy “Are you alright?” I’m not sure why I expected any different answer…He simply said “Yes”. I responded “OK”, and immediately felt like a heel as I released the brake and slowly pulled away, I guess secretly hoping to hear “Hey mister, don’t worry about me, I’m OK!”
That never happened, and I drove home feeling worse than ever, knowing that this could not end this way. By the time I drove into the driveway at home, I had already decided that an old shirt, some new socks, and a pair of tennis shoes that I had worn twice would not fit the young guy but were better than nothing. I was back in the car in under 5 minutes and back at the store a few minutes later, the apprehension building.
The boy was nowhere to be seen, but I had a hunch and parked the car around the corner, in the empty lot of the local Masonic temple. When I left the car, carrying the clothes under one arm, I headed for the darkened back of the convenience store where I could hear the noise of the heating and cooling compressors as they whirred and rattled …What better place for a cold, confused kid to hide? Sure enough, as I rounded the corner, I could barely make out a shadowy figure slip away, around to the west side of the building…I followed around and found the boy leaning up against the building, trembling like a leaf either from the cold or fear or both, I thought.
I immediately said as we made eye contact “I’m not going to force you to tell me why you’re out here like this, but I can’t let you stay out here tonight, it’s just too damn cold and it’s only going to get colder!” The boy looked nervously from side to side and started to say something but the words were choked back and I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. I gently asked “Did you get thrown out of your house?” The tears rolled down his face and he started to shake even more, his shoulders slumped, and he blurted out “I ran away”. The tears cascaded down his face and the sobs became an uncontrollable shaking release as he gave in to his pain and turned his palms outwards as if to beseech me or someone to answer the next question for him. I couldn’t stand it anymore… he may have been someone else’s child, but at that moment in time, he became everyone’s child. I pulled him to me and wrapped my arms around him and stroked his head and shoulders until he quieted, all the time, consoling him with hollow sounding phrases like “It’ll be alright”.
In the next minutes, as he regained his composure, he told me the story of the missing $100 that his father went ballistic over, blaming the family, his older brother, him, not completely sure who took the money; it was enough to know that it was missing and that he and his brother were in the crosshairs of a raging man, punching holes in the walls…he freaked out, and out of sheer terror and desperation, bolted from his home with the only clothes he had on, cold or no cold…
My heart was breaking, but I stayed calm and gently insisted that he now don the clothes that I had brought for him, which he did with some haste, still shaking all the while. Needless to say, I was now wedded to the situation, and many thoughts were now racing through my head, plans, solutions, none of them good…Call the police…God, would that turn this family inside out. Call the father, confront him with the terror that he has brought to his son…yeah, great, maybe make things even worse for this poor kid…Lord, what a mess; family problems- the worst thing to stick your nose into…I needed time to sort this out; time for things to cool down…
I looked across the street and noticed the lights of the Dunkin’ Donuts, one of the few businesses open in this one-dog town at 9pm. “Let’s go and get you a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, and talk this over,” I said. So, we walked side by side to the Dunkin’ Donuts and I sat him down at a small cafe table and for the first time, noticed how frail the kid looked, red-eyed, melting away in the man-sized shirt and over-sized shoes that I gave him to wear. I almost laughed and started to make an attempt to defuse the despair with a little humor, but I held off and brought the large hot chocolate to the table and sat down across from the boy…I asked him if he attended the local high school, which he confirmed. “So, tomorrow’s a school day for you” I said. He nodded. “Do you have any friends close by where you could spend the night until things quiet down?” I asked, immediately realizing that that was a poor solution at best. He looked at me and said tentatively, “I guess so”.” What about your Mom? Do you have a mom at home?” He nodded. I pulled out my cellphone and fumbled around with it while he absorbed the questions and worked out the possibilities in his head. I started thinking about the cop angle again and was about to bring up the option when he said “I think I’ll call my mom.”
I nodded and patted him on the head and said “That’s probably a good idea.” He took the cell, stood up and walked over to the end of the store, near the restrooms, for some privacy, I assume, and before I knew it was back at the table. “My mom just drove into the parking lot,” he said excitedly. He pulled off the shirt before I could stop him and started to reach down to take off the sneakers and socks but I stopped him and said “They’re yours, they’re yours buddy; in fact you can take the shirt as well!” He was in a big hurry and fumbled with the idea and said “Thanks, that’s OK.” “Are you going to be alright?” He looked at me and said “I hope so…”And with that, he raced for the back door and his mom.
At least he kept the socks and sneaks!
I can not stop thinking about this kid. His words haunt me. “I hope so.”
I have taken to driving through that neighborhood more frequently on the way to and from places; he had told me that he lived nearby. I feel like I failed a test. I feel like I failed the boy. I feel like I betrayed my own sense of duty.
I never asked him to tell me his name.

Whoever reads this, if anyone does, please give a kid a hug.

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