While heading back to my hotel through the empty passageways of the Minneapolis downtown skyway — a connected series of walkways that make a snowy day in Minneapolis more tolerable — I was walking while responding to messages on my phone. A gentleman appeared and walked towards me.
He said, “I am Gerald. And I need $43 to avoid needing to sleep on the street tonight.”
The long enclosed passageway was quiet and empty. It was just me and Gerald. I thought it was important that I listen to him. I asked him to tell me more.
He continued, “I was a cook for most of my life. And now I have fallen on hard times. I am 53, and nobody will hire me to cook anymore. I have tried to get a cooking job again.” Gerald then pointed to his face, “But they look at me and turn me away and say I am not qualified. They really mean I am overqualified.”
At this point, I realized that I couldn’t help him with his immediate problem as I wasn’t carrying much cash.
I asked him if there was a way he could use his cooking skills in a different kind of job.
Gerald responded with pride when he noted his cooking skills as having value, “In 1989 I was at the top of my class at the (can’t recall the name) cooking program.” He then paused and with a look of pain shared, “And in my late 30s, and for ten years, I spent my weekends at a homeless shelter cooking for hundreds of people as a volunteer. Now look at me.”
I gave him what cash I had, but I was short $20 — so I suggested that he tell his story to another person who was also attending the AIGA conference I’m at. We shook hands and bid goodbyes as he went in the other direction towards the conference area. When I got back to my hotel room, I got another $20 and rushed back through the skyway system towards the conference.
Midway, I found Gerald walking and speaking to a young designer who wasn’t stopping to listen to him. Gerald saw me and look surprised. We shook hands again. I wished for him to find his way to a cooking job again. And I asked if I could take his photo.
This note is to remind myself what it looks and feels like to lose one’s ability to apply their hard-earned skills in a world that no longer asks for them.