The man, stooped with age, held the heavy glass door for the girl with the tear-stained face. Bits of dirt and dried leaves were tangled at the back of her hair and clothes. The elderly man could tell that she had slept in the park.
Old Ben led her to the cafeteria line. They inched their way to the counter. He silently took a tray for her and then himself. He ordered a double breakfast for the girl. She started to protest and he waved his hand, “It’s okay, they know me here.” He smiled, pouring them each a cup of coffee. He paid at the cash register then told the girl to put the change in her pocket.
Old Ben walked slowly but with authority. He surveyed the room; the tables were all occupied. He noticed Hot Reggie (named for his favorite criminal activity) had finished eating, so he told him to make room for this girl. Hot Reggie pulled out a chair for her, then cleared away his dishes.
They ate silently. Old Ben had been around the block enough times to know better than to ask this girl any questions. She was obviously not from the streets and completely out of her element. Old Ben hoped she would find the strength to re-build her life from whatever calamity had befallen her.
Suze was relieved for the silence. She’d been fighting back tears since the old man introduced himself and brought her to the mission. The hot meal fortified her and the coffee helped her feel normal for the first time since she’d fled. “Thank you,” she whispered, knowing she’d start crying if she tried to speak further. “No thanks required,” Old Ben replied, “but if you want to thank me, then choose hope.”
Suze looked at him questioningly. Old Ben explained, “If it weren’t for hope, I’d have packed it in long, long ago. People gave me hope when I needed it, such as these folks at the mission. Later, when you’re able to, give hope to others. You’ll have so much to give, especially after this new chapter in your life. You’ll recognize when others need hope the most.”
Old Ben smiled and got up to refill their coffee cups. Suze hadn’t imagined herself in a new position of strength. It was all she could do to make it through the moments of these last few days.
Old Ben instructed Hot Reggie to stay with the girl; he’d be back in a minute. Old Ben was aware of the unwanted attention a single female could attract, and he knew all too well the different rules of the streets. Nobody would mess with her while she was with Hot Reggie. The two sat in comfortable silence, sipping coffee.
Suze looked at the card Old Ben handed her. He explained it was a membership card to the community center next door. She’d be able to use the showers, laundry, phones and library. He gave her some pamphlets. He pointed out the women-only resources as well as those open to everyone.
Suze felt gratitude, hope and heartbreak wash over her in a massive wave: her eyes stung and her throat burned. How could a stranger treat her with such care?
Maybe she could make it through; maybe she could walk through this fire. Maybe.
Once you choose hope, anything is possible.