Updated: Feb 26, 2021
In 2008, I graduated college a semester early and spent a few months living the dream in New York City. I worked for a national, faith based nonprofit that coordinated short term urban service trips for high school and college students, and found myself completely invigorated and impassioned by street level urban work.
I spent 4 months living in Brooklyn while I waited for a Peace Corps appointment and began what I thought at the time was my calling - a career in Youth Development.
During the first week of my training as a City Host, one of my colleagues and I took part in some of our immersive activities. On one night, we were given instructions for a sort of scavenger hunt, which ended in finding dinner in Manhattan for $3.
I remember that night like it was yesterday.
I remember it because I met Maximus.
That night so many years ago started with an envelope that included the name of a subway stop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, street addresses for boundaries on a huge city block, a list of instructions, and $6. We were supposed to catch the train from our neighborhood in Brooklyn and head out to our designated station. Once we got there, we needed to locate various services that could be utilized if we lived a life where we needed a meal, a hot shower, job or housing assistance, or a warm place to stay in the frosty New York February. Once we did all that, we were set out for dinner with our $6. If you have ever spent any time in Manhattan, you know that cheap food is not readily available... at least, none with any semblance of nutritional value! The catch though, was that in addition to feeding ourselves, we needed to break bread with someone who looked like they could use a meal.
By the time we were ready to eat, it was raining outside and Michael and I were quite drenched already. It also meant that the homeless and hungry that sat on street corners had spread out to find some cover. Michael and I sought our own refuge from the cold rain under some scaffolding in front of an empty retail space, and spotted Maximus. Confidently staking his DRY territory, Maximus turned down our offer to go grab a piece of pizza or hotdog with us, but commented that if we were passing back this way, he liked ketchup and mustard. And onions.
Michael and I set off to find a few hot dogs, and returned a few minutes later with three hotdogs, and no spare change. By the time we got back, another younger guy had joined Maximus under the construction scaffolding. Feeling badly for offering Max a [relatively] hot meal, we offered Ryan a hot dog, and Michael and I shared (guiltily knowing there was a fridge full of cold cuts back at the church where we lived).
I think the amazing thing, is that Max and Ryan expected us to drop the food and leave - they even blessed that decision. It was clear that few people took the time to engage the "dirty and weary" in true conversation, let alone make eye contact. Instead of dumping a paperbag in their lap, Michael and I ignored the stares of bustling New Yorkers, and sat down next to Max and Ryan, and truly listed as they told their story.
I'd be honored to share more of his story some day, but the point of this post is to share that that night, Maximus changed the trajectory of my entire career.