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A Piece of My Heart

P. Michael Albert II

When I was young, I, like most children, learned that I was always supposed to share, because it was the nice thing to do. As any five-year-old would, I assumed this only applied to toys and the like, that I had to give things to my sister or else she'd cry, and I'd be in trouble. It wasn't until one evening, seemingly like any other, that a complete stranger -- whom I would never meet again -- taught me the true importance of giving.

           Living in the small town of Half Moon Bay, California, there weren't many things of interest to a five-year-old boy. There were the surfers, constantly walking past my house on their way to the beach, wearing their flamboyantly colored wetsuits -- so as to avoid shark attacks, I knew -- and carrying their giant surfboards, each one unique to its owner. There were the occasional sea turtles and other oceanic creatures, long dead, that washed up on the beach, reeking so badly of week-old fish and salty sea water that your eyes streamed like burning rivers of fire and your throat clenched shut so tightly it seemed as if the air itself was throttling you. Like most boys my age, I enjoyed these things immensely, but there was something I loved even more: going into the Big City: San Francisco.

           Visiting the city was great; there was always something to do, although my favorite was visiting the different restaurants. Of all the places to eat, my very favorite was Ocean Pizza. My family went there almost weekly, mostly to appease me. It was on one such trip that I learned one of the most important lessons of my life.

           It was early in the evening, and, as always, there was a strong breeze blowing in from the ocean, stinging my face with chilly pinpricks while it tried to steal away my jacket. Marching up the sidewalk, I took in all the interesting sights of the city. Growing up in an area with such a diverse population, I was used to seeing people of all shapes and sizes, but some of them were always mysteries to me. The strangest ones were the dirty people, who had on old clothes and sat on the sidewalk, even when the weather was bad. When I asked my parents about these odd street dwellers, they told me those were homeless people, but this was still beyond my comprehension. Why didn't they have homes?

           One such man was sitting crouched outside the doors of Ocean Pizza, his frayed coat flapping in the chill wind. At first, he seemed like every other homeless person I had seen: he was swathed in layers of old, tattered clothing that seemed to have more holes than fabric and had unwashed, grimy hair and a ragged, unkempt beard with flecks of gray sprinkled throughout. As we got closer to him, I detected a slight odor, the unmistakable smell of someone who had not bathed in a very long time. But somehow, he did not seem to be unpleasant: his face was sad, and at the same time kind; he seemed hungry, though not greedy; good-hearted, but deprived. As we entered the restaurant, he stopped us, and asked -- without begging -- if we would be willing to give him any leftovers we would otherwise take home.

           We sat down in our usual booth, and my parents commented to each other how strange it was that this man had asked for food, not money. To me, though, it was not strange at all. If this man truly had no home, then he probably had no food. If he had no food, then he must be hungry: why not ask for food? The answer was simple, though I said nothing to my parents; they obviously didn't understand.

           The restaurant was filled with the same wonderful atmosphere as always: the scent of garlic drifted across the cozy room from the kitchen to our table; the light babbling of other patrons filled the air with a pleasant warmth like that of a fireplace; pizzas were served, with cheese bubbling, pepperoni sizzling, and golden crusts wafting puffs of steam like freshly baked bread. Everything was as it should have been. I was completely contented, forgetting about the cold, breezy night outside and the people living in it.

           After finishing our meal, we got ready to head home. We had some leftovers; two slices of my parents' pizza, with sausage, veggies, and other things I felt should never be on a pizza. More importantly, there were still three pieces of my favorite pizza, pepperoni. This was enough to give me a rather large lunch the next day, which was quite rare -- my dad usually ate what I couldn't, always to my displeasure.

           We stepped from the warm glow of the restaurant out into the dark, brisk night. The wind had abated somewhat, and was now only a slight breeze, carrying the fresh smell of the bay throughout the city. The ever-present clouds hovering over the city obscured the moon and starlight, a dark blanket bearing down upon us. Visibility was offered only by a few street lights, passing cars' headlights, and the occasional neon sign in store windows. Looking about, I noticed that the hungry man was still sitting on the sidewalk, and I began to think. Should I share with the man? He was hungry, and I wasn't, should I give him our pizza?

           "Have a nice night, Sir, Ma'am," called the hungry man as we walked past.

           For reasons still unknown to me, all these years later, that was the clincher. I stopped, dead in my tracks, one hand holding my pizza, the other holding on to my dad.

           "Mom, Dad? Can I give him our leftovers?" I asked so quietly I wasn't even sure I had actually spoken.

           My parents looked at each other, in silent deliberation. Finally, after what had seemed forever, my mom replied, "Michael, it's your pizza. You can do whatever you want to with it."

           I turned slowly, looking back at the hungry man. He was wrapped tightly in his shredded jacket, doing his best to ward off the bitter cold. I placed one immensely heavy foot in front of me, then the other, moving -- bit by bit -- back towards the pathetic figure sitting, balled up like a frightened child, in front of my favorite pizza place. After what seemed to be countless hours of grueling travel, I arrived -- pizza box gripped tightly in my hands like vices -- in front of the hungry man. He looked at me for an incredibly long time, apparently unable to speak.

           Mustering all my courage, I stood tall, extended my arms to the man -- who, sitting, was at my eye level -- and, with all the grown-up-ness a five-year-old could possess, said, "Here."

           The hungry man reached up, almost reverently, and lightly picked the box of leftovers from my hands. Placing both hands on his chest, the poor, hungry man said to me, "Thank you, Son. Thank you. I give you a piece of my heart." A single, crystalline tear streamed down his face.

           I only nodded, mouth gaping, eyes unblinking. I returned to my parents, an almost entranced look plastered upon my face.

           When I reached them, I looked into their friendly eyes, completely dumbfounded, and said, "He gave me a piece of his heart. Will he be okay without it?"

           Laughing, my parents assured me he would be just fine, and we headed home.

           I'll never forget that night, when a sad, hungry man on the street helped me learn how to give. The night that I shared my favorite pizza with him, and in return, was given the only thing he had to give: his gratitude.

About the Author (click here) © 2003 P. Michael Albert II, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

Author Notes

           I wrote this originally as an English assignment, but I think it turned out much better than what I had intended. I'm putting it out there to see what others think of it; not much else to it really.

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