His name was Toby.
You can always spot the “first-timers”. Most of them never say a word, and seem to do their best to disappear into the concrete structure that makes up the Marion St. Bridge. Others are brave enough to speak.
“Hello ma’am, that sure smells good.” His eyes, dark and too big for his face peered down into a kettle steaming with beef stew.
“Hi there, thanks for coming out to tonight. It’s nice to see you.” I say, as I heap an extra spoonful of stew onto a flaky homemade biscuit.
“Hungry?” I asked.
Laughing (more to himself than me), he quietly speaks as I’m handing him his plate, “I didn’t realize it has been nearly 4 days since I’ve eaten”. With a surprised look on his face, he whispers, “that feels like a long time”.
His cold hands reached for the plate, finding warmth from the heat of my beef stew.
“What’s your name?” I asked. Wondering if he’d tell me.
“My name is Toby ma’am”.
I watched him wander off, and I turned my attention to the next family waiting in line.
It was a cold October evening, the weather had turned bad suddenly, and the wind was howling under the bridge where we were serving dinner to a 100 or so of Salem’s homeless. It was a busy night. Everyone got fed… Thank you God.
There’s nothing more painful that having to turn away someone who truly hasn’t eaten in days. I’ve had nights in the past where I was forced to drive away from the bridge, knowing the folks I couldn’t feed would endure that alarming “empty, hollowed-out” feeling the stomach can get when it’s been days since it’s had any solid food.
As I was folding up my table, Toby reached down to help me load it into my SUV. Shuffling his feet, and jamming his hands in his pockets, he raised his eyes to look at me.
Clearing his throat, he said, ”Ma’am, that was awful good. I wanted to say thank you. And I wanted you to know, that you may see me a couple more times, but…ma’am, I have my application in everywhere and I KNOW I’m going to get a job”. The conviction in which he made this declaration brought tears to the corners of my eyes.
“I know you will Toby, I know it with everything I am.” My eyes penetrating his, desperately trying to connect with him as we shared a brief moment while he helped me load pots and pans into the back of my Denali.
I drove away that night, saying a prayer for Toby, and giving the rest to God.
Three weeks later, on another busy Wednesday night, Toby found me dishing out macaroni and cheese.
“Hi Toby, how’s it going?” I asked, as I handed him a plate of cheesy pasta and meatballs.
“Well ma’am, the job came through.” Smiling, his gaze was intense….”this will be my last meal under the bridge. I want to thank you. You’ll never know how much your words of encouragement helped me.” With a wink and a grin, he walked off.
The love I felt, at that exact moment was…well, tremendous. I could see how difficult it was for him to come to the bridge and stand in line for a meal…and I knew, based on the strength I saw in those big brown eyes, that this man was working on a plan. At that moment, the happiness I felt inside – this big, huge, overflowing feeling of happiness – it made me feel honored to have shared this time with him. Two brief encounters, which I will remember forever.
I watched him round the corner of the bridge and I knew this was a man who was about to turn the corner of life. I never saw Toby again…and to this day I continue to send him love, and hope he’s doing well.
We provide the meal. And in return, we are blessed in getting to meet people like Toby. You never know when a night at the bridge will leave an impression that will last forever on your heart.
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