Usually I just go home after working at the office, but I’ve decided that I have to cram in as much of D.C. as I can possibly experience in these last couple of weeks of my internship. Today my post work excursion was to go see the Amorphophallus titanium, the stinky blooming flower at the National Botanical Garden. The flower had pretty much finished blooming, so the foul smell was really only coming from sweaty tourists and Washingtonians. With a little disappointment, I headed towards the Metro, but not without stopping by the closest Starbucks for some needed refreshment. So I was taken off guard when a sweaty bearded man asked me to buy him a cup of coffee, as I went through the door.
I normally don’t carry cash, so I can honestly say I don’t have 50 cents to spare when asked for money. (Plus, just from my experience handouts aren’t always the best option for someone in need.) However my heart and my own love of coffee told me I couldn’t ignore this man’s simple request. I continued inside and ordered the coffee. The man didn’t actually follow me into the store, and probably thought my “ok” didn’t mean I would actually do it. While waiting, I looked out the window and no longer saw the man and thought, “Great, now I just bought a cup of coffee for the dude and he ran off.” Luckily, I went outside to find him still beside the building.
I handed him the coffee to which he replied, “Thanks I needed the sugar!”
“Oh, it doesn’t have sugar in it. “
“I know, but I’ll go put some in it. I like your purple shirt” He responded.
I told him to have a great afternoon and walked across the street, but for some reason I couldn’t leave. I sat at the bus stop bench and watched through the window as the bearded man put several packs of sugar into his coffee, along with engaging a few other customers at the condiment stand. He walked out of the Starbucks, walked two circles around the street sign, and back to the outdoor seating where he pulled out several notepads and a pack of gel pens.
I had just told my friend the day before that interning in D.C. can be kind of lonely, and maybe I just need to start making friends with strangers. Well, call this an opportunity or not I decided to take it. I walked back over to the Starbucks and politely asked if I could sit down with the bearded man. “Of course,” said the man and then went on to ask me what I was doing in D.C. I told him I was an intern, and planned on becoming a nurse. To this he went into this monologue about his life, how he was in the military, was an engineer, and pursued being a doctor. I could tell within a short period of time that this man was mentally ill. While his speech was extremely intelligent, his story didn’t have much continuity. Plus with the absurdity of his government conspiracy theory and claim to own part of the Internet, I knew I was in for an interesting exchange.
“So you’re going to be a nurse, how would you diagnose me? Every doctor I’ve seen has diagnosed me as a schizophrenic,”
(Sarcastically thinking: Really? How could they tell? J )
I told him, “Well, your stories definitely run in circles and it seems like you have a hard time conveying your ideas in a way that is clear to me, but I am not a doctor so I’m not going to diagnose you.”
I asked him where he was sleeping, and he pointed to the sidewalk across the street. He commented that he didn’t like staying in a shelter and never felt safe sleeping next to so many other men. I went on to ask him how he ended up begging for coffee on the streets. His story in response was a jumbled mess, so I’ll never know what was true and what was just a part of his imagination. From what I could piece together, he was adopted, and was a bright child at a young age. He overworked himself during his job as an engineer, and slowly showed signs of schizophrenia. He endangered his wife and kids, and is no longer allowed to contact them. Ever since he’s traveled from state to state trying to get help, and has been in and out of mental hospitals. He’s now 31 years old.
After letting him tell his story, I shared a little bit about my diabetes, and how I didn’t do anything to get it, much like he never did anything to get a mental illness. I told him how sorry I was that he ended up in such a position and in a system that just isn’t working. We continued to talk for a considerable amount of time, and covered an array of topics including our beliefs in God and the afterlife.
Finally, I asked him, “As a future nurse, what do you think is the best thing I can learn from you?”
He replied, “To actually do something. There’s so much red tape that I can never get anywhere or enough help to help me out of this condition.”
Right about that time, an FBI squad car pulled up to the Starbucks and my bearded friend started packing up his stuff.
“I usually don’t stick around here this long, so I’m not surprised their after me,” he commented.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you here.”
That’s ok, I am glad you came and talked to me, because usually it’s just me and the chairs.”
“Well, I don’t have a home here in D.C. to offer you a room, but I’m glad I could get you some coffee and have a chance to meet you.”
“What’s your name by the way?”
“Kate, and what’s yours?”
“I go by James Richman.”
“Well, it was nice to meet you James.”
I walked away, thinking about the paradox of this man’s name in his current situation, and wondered if he had called himself that in light of his conditions. All I know for sure is that our meeting enriched my life.