I hustled along the sidewalk with two hot coffees in hand and adrenaline still pumping from parking a 16’ van in the middle of downtown Denver. I skipped across the street and rounded the corner where I could see the vibrant mobile shop parked, lights glowing from the inside. I got ready to sprint across 16th Street Mall in front of an oncoming bus - I simply had no time to waste - when I heard rattling chains and saw a slumped over figure in my peripheral. I almost lost my footing as I stopped running and turned to approach the human moving about in the shade of a tall building. I could see in the distance that the man was trying to remove a chain used to secure the planters to the sidewalk. He then stood up and began removing small parts of this particular plant, putting them in his mouth and eating what I assumed to be his breakfast. Before I had the opportunity to consider how to address him, he looked up and said, “Good Morning!”
“Good Morning, Sir,” I said, half startled and half relieved. “How are you this morning?” I asked, but I knew.
“Another day,” he hesitated.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, guiltily looking down at my recently brewed, steaming purchases.
I ran across the street and jumped up the wooden stairs into the truck. I ran to the front and opened a bin where I pulled out a gallon size bag filled with gloves, socks, hygiene products and hand warmers. Without saying a word, my fiancé sat at the checkout counter and watched me dart out the back, across the street, towards the grocery cart filled with bags and blankets.
“Here, Sir” I said, handing him a rather sorry gift in the midst of reality.
He looked at the bag, his eyes widened as he graced me with a thank you. I told him to have great day, only later realizing about how numb that must sound. I casually walked back to the truck where we sat across the street watching the man go about a morning routine that could have only been sculpted by concrete bedrooms and dumpster kitchens. I tried to welcome shoppers with excitement but couldn’t shake the momentary interaction I had just shared with this stranger.
“Thanks!” we hollered as a group of young women exited the truck.
I eagerly looked over to where I had last seen the homeless man drinking an orange juice carton out of the trash can. He was nowhere in sight. I sighed, said something of a prayer for him, and went about operating the traveling business.
Several moments later, I looked out, observing the humans moving back and forth, in jeans and dresses, some on cell phones, some strapped with cameras. I watched parents clumsily carry their kids across the street and sweet old couples hold hands as they took their time getting from one side to the other. It was in that intense moment of appreciation that I was startled by a familiar, deep and scratchy voice.
“I was gonna see if you had any winter pants in here,” said the homeless man, parking his cart and gingerly stepping off the curb to look inside the shop. He smiled and extended a green glove riddled with holes. "I'm Robert."
I apologized for not having any winter pants for him as I steadily approached him with a crooked smile.
"Anna," I said, shaking his hand.
I hopped down onto the concrete as we began to strike up a conversation. I told him I was thinking of delivering blankets and sleeping bags to individuals living on the street and asked him what he thought about the idea. He said it would help and that they desperately needed socks for their frostbitten feet, pointing to his own. While waving around a bare finger emerging from split fabric, he told me he receives gloves that are often too small so he gives them away to the females around the area.
I studied his face as he spoke. Slowly, carefully, words traveled out of his mouth between a wired gray beard and withered teeth. He told me that he used to be a farmer and fairly well off. He told me about how he thinks technology is destroying our youth and how he believes we only borrow the earth from our children. I saw memories of marriages, children and life events flash behind his tired eyes. I nodded in agreement as I watched him spill his past and present into a moment between two complete strangers simply seeking, hoping for good things in the world.
After Robert and I shared our thoughts, he opened his arms and fell into mine for a hug. Not even all the layers he was wearing could keep Robert at a distance. He left a lasting impression on me that day.
He grabbed his cart and awkwardly eased it down the curb. One last wave good-bye and Robert was off - half limping, half wheeling - across the street towards the next trash can.
When we began this mobile boutique journey I had many thoughts. I wondered how our generators would run or how our inventory would hold up. I hoped our wood floors were the perfect choice and that the paint color was just the right shade. I anticipated customer service skills coming into play and I figured we would meet some characters here and there - but I did not expect to be so completely graced by humanity this way. Never for a moment did I think that I would be immersed into so many individual stories, like Roberts.
I often reflect back on Robert’s story. And Steph’s, and Steven’s and Roy's and the businessman we met on 16th Street Mall and the adorable school teacher at the Union Station and the single mom from the Highland’s neighborhood! I think of our many homeless friends warming up in the sun on the street corner, intrigued by the pastel colored truck. I think of the children who climb up the wooden stairs, shy at first, but eased by the collection of colorful images and patterns. I think of the dogs and their owners who curiously pop-up into the shop, swinging tails in full effect. We thank each and every one of you for your individuality, for your story and for allowing us a place in your world - even for just a brief moment.
People like Robert have inspired us to be able to give back to those who are in need. As we wrap up our February Sleeping Bag Drive, we offer our sincere gratitude to everyone who has donated, participated, shared or read our story. We hope to continually improve upon showing love for our city and community!