In D.C., the humid air grabs you and embraces you with every step you take. The Capitol—a beacon of democracy and progress—stares down streets littered with Black, destitute souls—plagued with hopelessness. D.C., a tale of two cities—power and poverty.
I remember my first time visiting D.C., three things struck me. First, the sheer amount of people in the city that looked like me. Second, the droves of homeless men and women dispersed throughout the streets—sleeping or begging for money. Lastly, most of the homeless men and women also looked like me.
The summer I moved to D.C., my brother visited me. One early afternoon, we went out to explore the city. As we were walking, we approached a man lying on the grass beside the sidewalk. He was a brown skinned Black man, roughly in his 30s. He wore a hospital gown and bandages with reddish-brown stains wrapped around the wounds on his arms and legs. Not all the wounds were draped with bandages. Some left exposed, festering and cracking in the sweltering D.C. sun. Flies hovered over the wounds. His feet—bare. His skin—dry. His face—lifeless. He looked like he was dying on the street. I was in shock. My heart raced. My mind scattered. He asked for medicine. I did not know what to do. He said he was diabetic and needed help. I did not know what to do. We continued to walk. We walked until he was out of sight. No matter how far out of sight the man was, he never left my mind. The thought of him still lingers in my mind to this day. I did not do enough. I failed him.
One day, I dropped off clothes and accessories at So Others May Eat, a local D.C. shelter. When I departed my Uber, carrying a bag of assorted items—someone out front took the bag off my hands and placed it in a corner outside. The transaction looked a tad shady—I asked for my receipt. Eventually, he carried the bag into the building for me. As he was doing so, he told me the clothes would not become available until Friday but the people needed the clothes now. I felt what he was saying, but I did not know him and I wanted to go through the official process just to sure ensure integrity in the process—he assumingly was going to distribute the clothes himself. He asked if there were any shoes in the bag. I told him I would give him something when we got inside the actual center.
While we were walking inside, an East African woman yelled “bag!” As she looked at my O’Melveny & Myers beach bag, I received that past summer; she proceeded inside after us and asked the desk attendant if she could get the bag I was donating—I never planned on donating the bag. The bag contained clothes I was taking to the dry cleaner after I left the shelter. But she was so fixated on the bag. The attendant told her, “You know the rules, all donated items must be processed, then they can be given out probably around Friday.” It was Monday and she looked extremely disappointed. She had a clear accent that told a story of immigration, resulting in hard times. I felt for her. After all—I too immigrated to this country from Nigeria. But, alas, our paths were different. My journey afforded me the ability to donate—while she was left on the receiving side of the donation.
After I dropped off the clothes and received my receipt—I gave the guy who carried the bag a pair of shoes. Some nice Adidas kicks that I no longer fancied. A smile crept across his face followed by a gleeful exclamation of “Oh yea…These a do.” I made him happy and that me happy—it warmed my heart.
After I left the center and took the clothes in my beach bag to the dry cleaner, I walked home. It was a sweltering day, with glaring heat advisories in affect. Despite this, I saw multiple individuals, who looked just like me, sleeping on the streets. During my walk, I battled internally with whether to walk back to the shelter and give that woman the bag. I decided to walk back to the shelter. I thought about her face when she first saw the bag. I thought about how much that one item meant to her. I thought about the streets of D.C. I thought about the man I saw on the street nearly a year ago, which I walked away from.
She needed that bag more than me—it would make her day. When I walked back, she was nowhere to be found. I saw the man who gave me my receipt. He was a short dark man with stud earrings, tattoos scattered across his arms, and a cigarette in his mouth. He gave me a dap and thanked me for donating the clothes earlier. He told me he was able to put the clothes out today for people to grab. He said that I was able to help a lot of people. I was happy that I could contribute to that, but I had one more piece of business to handle—the East African woman infatuated with my bag. I asked him if he saw her and described her to him. He said that he knew who I was talking about and would make sure she got the bag.
I do not know if she ever got the bag, but I hope she did. We all suffer from one thing or another and sometimes there is that one thing you can find joy in. For some, a cathartic online shopping experience, others a new car, or shiny toy. But for her: perhaps it was just a bag. We are all searching for that bag—that single thing that brings us happiness. For some, like the homeless in D.C.—it may mean a lot more. At the end of the day, we all deserve that type of happiness. But, most importantly, we must realize how much it differs from person to person. We must realize that for some, happiness rarely comes. And we cannot walk away like I did that day with that man. For those devoid of that bag, that true realization of joy—we have an obligation to bring it to fruition for them. If we do not, who will? We all deserve to happiness at least once in our life.