We first met “Jim” on an early summer morning sleeping on a bench in the back of our parking lot. As you can see he’s wisely moved to our patio in an obvious effort to combat the wind and rain. When I pulled in that morning and saw a body lying prone on our property I initially thought the worst before realizing it was just a guy who’d crashed outdoors for the night. No harm, no foul in my mind. He roused from sleep and we made the necessary introductions while he rolled up his blankets. Assuming he was a drifter and being the kindhearted person that I am I offered him some food which he graciously accepted. I went inside and fixed a hearty sandwich of two fried eggs with cheddar cheese and bacon delivering it to him along with a bottle of ice cold water. In between chews he said he didn’t mean to cause any trouble and appreciated the meal and the place to sleep. I said no problem and after a few minutes he gathered himself and left.
A few days later I came to work and saw him in the same place. We said our good mornings but this time there’d be a need to set some ground rules since it appeared he was adopting our parking lot. I told him we didn’t have a problem with it but he was responsible for his own safety, keeping the area clean and had to be gone before we opened. He didn’t go into any of his backstory which was fine. I hadn’t planned on asking, it wasn’t my business and I wasn’t interested in it anyway. I didn’t offer him any food that day either but I did offer some work.
My mother-in-law owns a property nearby and there were hedges that needing trimming along with other general yardwork. I said if he did the trimming and raking while I cut grass I’d pay him fifty bucks plus lunch from the restaurant. If that sounded good we’d meet the next day right there in the parking lot. He said “sure!” and thanked me a thousand times.
Jim wasn’t there the next day or the day after. When I saw him again a week later he was back at his old spot on the bench. He’d continue to pop up sporadically over the next several months and we’d wave or say hi if we ran into one another. I never brought up his no-show, neither did he. And this is nothing new.
- Fifteen years ago when minimum wage was $5.15 an hour I offered a guy nearly twice that to show up from 8AM – Noon at our catering business. All he had to do was help the manager in the kitchen while I delivered orders and canvassed the city for new business. Most days there’d be little for him to do because we were just getting off the ground. We simply needed another body in place to help with what was coming in and be up to speed when things eventually got rolling. He showed up the first day and never returned.
- Not long ago we had a family member working with us who then, and now, is probably one argument away from homelessness. There was an efficiency apartment available within walking distance of the restaurant renting for $350 a month along with the potential to make about $1700 a month at our place. He got his first check for $500 and disappeared for two days leaving us in a really bad spot that week. He even had the nerve to get upset when we fired him.
- When no one else would hire her we gave an ex-con a job opportunity thereby fulfilling the requirements of her probation. The exact day it ended and after staying gainfully employed with us for the six months or whatever it was, she abandoned her job. Vanished. No call, no show, no thank you, nothing. Rumor had it she was back with the wrong crowd that same evening.
Ask any industry vet and they’ll tell you this is how it goes. And for some reason we always come back for more because we’re in the business of second chances. Giving them, and being in the business we’re in, asking for them at times. I believe foodservice operators are naturally tuned into a higher level of empathy because of this. But I’ve wondered lately why some of the people we help continually struggle and it made me think back to what a friend and mentor told me years ago: It’s the challenge.
He explained that barring any legitimate mental illness everyone is in complete control of their choices and behavior. They know good from bad and right from wrong. Men and women will push and challenge themselves to depths of danger, depravity and physical discomfort as vigorously as those who’ll challenge themselves to heights of accomplishment and success. It’s all part of understanding people and what motivates them. For some, the rush of living on the edge is the satisfaction of one day telling their “back from the brink” story, which for most people is usually the more interesting one to hear and definitely more fun to tell. The problem is once that road is taken the comeback is usually harder than they realized and the story doesn’t end as expected. His message was that in general, people are who they want to be.
It sounded oversimplified and a bit cold but I understood his point. The drug addict’s challenge might be “How high can I get before I overdose?” The challenge for the person on the street may be “How long can I survive out here living by my wits?” The stick-up man’s challenge could be “How long can I flirt with these suicide missions (armed robbery being purely a suicide mission) before I’m killed – by a merchant, police officer, citizen etc.”
At what point can I almost die but not die.
This is a challenge many people enjoy and it’s real whether we like it or not. I won’t stop trying to help but that person has to want it. At some point they’ll have to look around and say “enough.” It’s getting cold now and Jim still spends the night at our place from time to time. We call him the night watchman.
UPDATE: As of last week I’ve told “Jim” he has to sleep somewhere else. After giving him second and third chances we grew tired of picking up after him. Our disposal of cigarette butts and beer cans in addition to the disassembly of his cardboard lean-to’s wasn’t part of the agreement. We wish him the best.
Honey Mustard Chicken
- 2T Honey
- 1T Dijon Mustard
- 1T Lemon Juice
- 1/2t Poppy Seed
- 1/4t Pepper
- 2 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
In a small bowl mix honey, mustard, lemon juice, poppy seed and pepper. Set aside. Rinse and pound chicken with tenderizer or mallet to uniform thickness, Pat dry. Brush sauce on chicken and bake in 350 degree oven.