Dear American Dreamers, Meet Phil

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
– Helen Keller

Sometimes, you have to go looking for opportunities. And sometimes, opportunities walk right through the door of Subway and into your life.

In taking this year off of school, I have launched a very exciting career as a “Sandwich Artist” at Subway. The days tend to follow the same general pattern – I wake up, I go to work, I make lots of subs, I go home, I scheme about how not spend the rest of my life making subs. But this past Wednesday was different. I still woke up and went to work, same as always, but mid-afternoon, a customer unlike I had ever seen before came through the door. I’m not sure of his name, but he kind of seemed like a Phil, so for the intents of this story, I’ll refer to him as Phil.

Phil was an older gentlemen with an unkempt beard and a dirty face. He was clearly homeless. His clothes were soiled and ripped, and he walked with the uneasy gait of someone desperate and sad. If you couldn’t tell he was homeless by his appearance, you knew it by his stench. The minute he opened the door, the whole customer service area immediately reeked of pungent body odor and urine. It definitely was the kind of smell that causes your appetite to abate (which is less than ideal when you work at a place where people come to purchase food.)

Phil approached the sub counter apprehensively and murmured in a voice edged with defeat, “will work for food.” My manager and I quickly engaged in a silent conversation:

“Should we…?”
“I normally would but…”
“…the inspector is right there. I know. This sucks.”
“I know.”

We turned back to Phil. My manager spoke apologetically.
“I’m so sorry sir, but… well I don’t think we’re allowed to do that.”
Phil, obviously used to the rejection, slumped away to a booth unsurprised.

My manager and I continued our conversation in the back, this time verbally:

“Probably are supposed to kick him out, huh?”
“Probably. But I’m not going to.”
“And I am certainly not going to!”
“And if the inspector says something?”
“Oh well. If that’s what this job means I don’t want it.”
“Same.”

My manager and I went back out front, both on edge, waiting for the inspector to confront us on as to why we were allowing a homeless man loiter inside, when he was clearly incapable of buying anything. He would’ve been completely unobtrusive, but his stench had permeated throughout Subway.

I seriously cannot emphasize enough how bad he smelled.

I was getting off in an hour, so I approached him timidly and asked him if he would allow me to take him grocery shopping at Hannaford (which was part of the same plaza as Subway) when I finished my shift of work. He readily agreed.

Cue the beginning of one of the longest and most frustrating hours of my life.

It was around one in the afternoon, which is one of the times Subway is at it’s busiest. Customers were coming in at fairly steady pace. Some were just ordering subs for themselves, others were picking up orders for their whole family. It was like any other lunch rush, or rather, it would’ve been, had Phil not been sitting at a booth in the corner.

And then something terrible happened.

As previously mentioned, Phil had a certain stench that would quell anyone’s appetite. There is no way it wasn’t apparent to those who came in to purchase subs. And yet, he only invoked one of two reactions. The customers either:

(a) hauntingly ignored him completely, making it seem as if he didn’t exist at all, or
(b) made passive aggressive remarks to me (or my manager) about how “we could use a little more air freshener in here” (or simply an “it stinks” paired with a sidelong – and intentionally not subtle – glance at Phil.)

Now, to be fair, I didn’t know the stories of the customers who came in, any more than I knew Phil’s story. But this much was obvious: they were at least capable of purchasing a sub, indicating they lived decently comfortably.

They were capable of purchasing a sub.

Really, isn’t that all I really needed to know?

And yet, not one, not one, of all of the customers we had offered to purchase a sub for Phil. Or offered him a drink. Or even just offered their spare change they received from the purchase of their sub to him.

I was absolutely disgusted.

Aside from the passive aggressive comments I received, people acted as though Phil didn’t exist. (And even those comments didn’t refer to him personally; he was nothing more than a smell inconveniencing their day.) It was as if because he was homeless, he was sub-human somehow; like he wasn’t worth helping. Even though he was a person, albeit a homeless one, just as much as you and I are people. I’m sorry, did I miss the memo somewhere along the way to become pompous in my comfortable life and arrogantly ignore those who don’t have as much as I do?

“Look at me, and look at all I’ve done. Does that dirty little man actually expect me to give him a helping hand and use my hard-earned money on an unemployed bum? Ha, jokes on him, because I’ve earned everything I have and he should do the same. And he should take a shower while he’s at it. He’s ruining my nice lunch.”

As I said before, I don’t know these customers’ stories anymore than I know Phil. But by virtue of the fact they could buy a sub, it was obvious they were much more well to do than he was. (we have a 6-inch sub at Subway that costs under $4, and Phil didn’t even have the money to swing that.)

I get it. It’s the American Dream; the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” The self-made man. Phil should have to get a job and earn his keep just like the rest of us. However, last I checked, it was pretty stinkin’ difficult to get a job when you come into a place looking (and smelling) like Phil did. And I ask, you all-knowing, hard-working American Dreamers, where is Phil to go to remedy this? Without a home, you have no shower. Without a shower, you have no way to clean yourself to the standard our society expects. Without being able to clean yourself adequately, you have no job, and therefore no money. Without money, you have no home. And we’re back right where we started.

Yes, maybe you’ve never reached such a low point in your personal life. Maybe you’ve been blessed exceedingly and never had to experience any sort of poverty. The only want you’ve known has consisted of not getting everything you asked for on your Christmas or birthday list. That has been my experience. But does that somehow place you in a different class as the people who are struggling to figure out where their next meal is coming from? Does that somehow make you superior?

We’re all somewhat dependent on the grace and generosity of other people in our personal lives. It varies in degrees to what extent and in what areas, but the fact of the matter doesn’t change. We need each other. We depend on each other. And if we don’t take care of our own kind, who else is going to do it? What if, God forbid, the rug was taken out from under you and you lost everything? Everything you’ve worked so hard to attain was gone. Would you want to be treated the way you treat those in that position now?

And, as previously mentioned, Phil did ask to work for his food. He wanted to earn it; he didn’t want it to be given to him. He still had some dignity. But we couldn’t even give him that.

When I approached him at the end of my shift to see if he was ready to go grocery shopping with me, he responded instantaneously with a tired monologue that I suspect was his knee-jerk response whenever he saw a employee (of anywhere) approach him. Before I could say a word, (I had actually ended up clocking out a little early because I was so upset by the whole situation and the lack of empathy among our customer base) he interjected with a defensive plea for mercy: “I’m just here to get warm. I’m just trying to get warm.”

He felt the need to justify himself for simply sitting somewhere. If that doesn’t break your heart, then don’t even bother to continue reading (frankly, I’m surprised you’ve made it this far.)

I smiled at his concern and said, “I’m sorry sir, I think you’ve misunderstood me. I’m not here to kick you out of Subway. I’m here to ask you if you’re ready to go grocery shopping with me.”

Phil seemed legitimately confused. I don’t think he had even the slightest recollection of our earlier conversation.

“Sir, would you like to go to Hannaford with me? It’s right down there. I’d like to buy you some groceries.” (My manager had also given me some money for the groceries, since he had to continue working until close).

“If you don’t want to come, that’s fine too. I can buy the groceries and bring them back here to you. Is there anything you’re allergic to or don’t like?”

Phil shook his head silently, stunned. I still don’t think he fully comprehended what was going on.

“Okay sir, why don’t we walk outside together, and you can tell me what you want on my way over to Hannaford.”

Phil followed me out, but he elected not to go in with me. He waited outside.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as humbly grateful as Phil was when I came back with the groceries. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes spoke volumes.

I don’t know how Phil got to the point he was in when he walked through Subway’s door last Wednesday. I don’t know his story. Heck, I don’t even know his name. But the truth is, I don’t really need to. It was obvious he was a person who was in need of some help, that, by the grace of God, I had the means to provide. And that’s really all there is to it. I might not be able to help all of the homeless people in America, and so be it. But there is no excuse not to help those I can.

“Two things I ask of you;
    deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.”
Proverbs 30:7-9

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