He Just Wanted a Cigarette

Tonight I went walking the cold rainy streets of Auckland New Zealand and did something I’ve never done before; I stopped and chatted with a homeless person. I didn’t do it so that I could make myself look good by blogging about it. I did it because my heart told me too, it was a strong overwhelming feeling and though the idea made me nervous I knew I needed to do it. I’m 48 years old and haven’t always listened to my heart, that’s something that needs to change in me. A similar thing happened to me the last time I was in Auckland, I was in a coffee shop and there was an old man nearby taking his time sipping his coffee, I felt a strong sense that I should have connected with him but couldn’t bring myself to do it. So after a little while he went on his way. It was my loss and maybe his too.

As I approached the homeless man I knew he probably was on the streets because of mental illness and that I likely couldn’t do anything to change his situation. I just wanted to give him some sort of comfort by connecting with him and letting him know someone cared. Sometimes that’s all people need, just someone to have a friendly chat with. He said his name was Miller- Strauss and was born in 1960. He said his Dad was musical and named him after Glenn Miller and Johann Strauss. He said he used to play the piano quite well when he was a young man. He said he was born in America from German descent. I observed that he looked of Islander or Maori appearance, maybe he was from Hawaii. Or maybe he was making up stories, I don’t really know.

He asked me if I had a cigarette, I told him I didn’t. I asked him the types of questions that you (are supposed to) ask a homeless person such as if he was warm enough and had eaten. He told me some story about going to “the mission” and them not liking him because he sometimes “rumbles”. I’m not sure what he meant by that, I’d say there are some caring Christian people in town who give out food but maybe he’s aggressive and difficult. Anyway, he told me he didn’t want any food and said he was warm enough.

We sat on the sidewalk near subway and chatted for a while, we called each other “brother” and I really liked that; we really are brothers. He told me he had schizophrenia, I’m no psych but I have some understanding as to how debilitating this condition is. He said it was a horrible thing to live with. I can’t even imagine. I asked him if he takes meds and he replied that he always does. I’m not sure if that’s the case. He went on a bit of a rant about the medical system and how they chew people up and spit them out. He asked me about myself and I shared a little of my story. We shook hands and I told him I’d check up on him tomorrow night and he smiled for the first time.

Then I did something I thought I’d never do, I went to the shop across the road and brought him a packet of cigarettes and (at his request) a bottle of Coke. If you think I did the wrong thing I’ll leave you to your opinions. I could have moralised with this broken man about the evils of smoking but that’s not what he needed. He just needed a bottle of Coke, a cigarette and some human connection.

We should all understand; mental illness could affect me, you, our children or our best friend. There is a saying “but for the grace of God go I”. You don’t have to believe in God to understand the truth of this statement. Sometimes we are too judgmental on those on the fringes of society but we should realise that Miller-Strauss could be any one of us.

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