An acid wind bit through my jeans as I waited for the crosslight to turn green on Frederick Avenue. A black man, several inches shorter than me and a few decades younger came up and stopped beside me. As we stood there, I remarked, “Not much fun standing out here today.” He looked at me out from under his hood, hesitated, then looked back toward the sidewalk, “No, it’s too cold.”
I guess his neatly trimmed goatee helped keep his chin warm but that wasn’t enough for this type of weather. The wind chill was below zero and neither of us was dressed for distance in this temperature. I was only crossing the street from Firestone to Penney’s but he had come from back up the block.
I took another look at the red fleece jacket he was wearing over his gray hoodie. It was ripped in several places across the upper right side, slashes that had frayed with wear. I couldn’t imagine being out in this wind with a ripped jacket. I wished I had brought along one of the extra six coats that I had at home in my closet so I could give him one.
The light changed and we walked quickly across the five lanes. The thought forming in my mind struck me as a bit odd and I left it alone until we got to the grass strip between Frederick and the mall. A few more steps and the urging was too strong, I had to speak. I slowed my steps and looked over to him on my left side. “Would you like to have a new coat?” I asked him.
We both stopped and he looked at me as if unsure whether I was about to rob him or try do something even more sinister. I saw him glance briefly at my jacket. “I’d be happy to buy you a new coat if you’d like to have one,” I clarified. I don’t think he could tell that it was more than an offer; it was a plea. The sight of him walking around in a minus-something wind chill in a tattered jacket made my heart ache.
Again, though, he declined, “No, I’m okay. My other coat’s in the washing machine. I’m good, really.”
“Well, I’d be happy to buy you one if you’d like to have it,” I repeated, one last time.
“No but I appreciate you asking. Thank you.”
We parted ways a few steps later as I headed toward the north entrance of J. C. Penney’s and he continued on around the west side of the mall. I had no idea how far he was going on this bitter day but I was glad that I only had a few hundred feet to go. I saw him walking past the corner as I reached for the door.
After returning the defective gloves I’d bought the week before, I walked around the store, looking at the coats that were on sale. Leather coats, wool coats, synthetics with thick quilted linings. I thought about how much warmer every one of them would have been than his two layers of worn fleece. “Heck,” I thought, “with these sale prices, I could have gotten him a really nice coat for less than a hundred bucks.”
I have no idea whether or not it was pride or suspicion or something else entirely that led him to decline my offer. Regardless of his response, I was very glad that I had responded to that quiet prompting of the Spirit. But it also made me sad.
Sad to think that pride could keep a man cold on a day like this. Even sadder to think it could be that kindness is so unusual in that young man’s life, and maybe in many others’, that a kind offer seems dangerous, a threat of some sort. Maybe, if we all worked at it for a bit, we could change that, at least for those who share our steps from time to time.