As I sat in a Starbucks in Uptown Charlotte recently typing away at my computer, I noticed many people walking back to work. Lunch hour was over and I could tell by their collective expressions that the work anxiety was building. These thoughts were interrupted by a coupon being slid on the table next to my laptop.
“$50 off LYFT Promocode: FIFTYNOW”.
I was immediately suspicious when I saw a man whom I took to be a LYFT driver circling me. I sat on the tall bar stool and a list of potential excuses ran through my mind.
‘I prefer Uber.’
‘My partner drives me everywhere.’
‘Thank you for the coupon (now go away).’
I continued to type and pretended I didn’t notice this person but I could tell he wasn’t going away. I gave him a glance as he took a seat next to me.
“What are you drinking?”, he asked, staring at my coffee cup. “Chai latte, I think. It’s almost empty.”
He looked at me and asked if he could have my cup. I had no idea what he wanted to do with it but curiosity compelled me to agree. He gave me a mischievous wink as he grabbed the cup and walked to the register. I watched as he had a conversation with the barista. He came back and sat down as if nothing happened. The cup was full of coffee.
“You can get a free refill if you’re smart,” he said, smiling.
He then suggested that we move to the Mecklenburg Public Library, where the Wi-Fi is stronger. As we left he extended his hand and said, “My name is Raul Rivas. I’m very happy to meet you.”
His gentle handshake and smile was a welcoming gesture. I didn’t feel like I was meeting a new friend. I felt like I was reuniting with family.
I soon noticed that Raul was picking up cigarette butts from the sidewalk as we walked. He put the mostly spent cigarettes inside a plastic mouthpiece that he saved from a cigar. As he lit the cigarette it made me question my previous assumptions. It was shortly after this moment that Raul revealed to me that he had been homeless for more than a year.
Raul was employed at the Philip Morris plant in Concord, North Carolina until it closed in 2007. His position was eliminated along with over 2,000 others. He had worked as an electronic analyst in the plant, where he used a specialized computer system to monitor quality control standards throughout the facility. He had a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He thought the job would help him support his family until retirement.