“If I had some water, I’d give you a drink!”
Panting, I looked down at the grizzled man sitting on the corner. A ripped Notre Dame cap sat upon his emaciated face, his body hidden beneath a ripped Notre Dame sweatshirt and jeans. He sat next to a large blue backpack and held a cardboard sign asking for work.
I was tired—at the end of a ten-mile run and only four blocks from home. Breathless and somewhat pathetically, I relied, “If I had some food, I’d give you a meal.” He chuckled and said, “Well, you know where to find me, young lady.”
“I do.” Then the light changed and I was off. I should make him a sandwich when I get home, I thought.
But when I arrived home, my son was screaming and my daughter causing chaos. Changing into mommy-mode, I forgot the man on the corner.
Two years passed and I was driving to church. The same grizzled man stood on the corner on a horribly cold March morning. How many days has he been here, I wondered. I hadn’t noticed him recently but perhaps I simply hadn’t looked. As we stopped for the red light, my husband grabbed a Clif bar out of the glovebox and waved the man over. He scampered to the car window and took the Clif bar with surprising enthusiasm for a man missing most of his teeth.
“You know the best way to eat these? Put them in the microwave on a piece of bread and melt them. They are delicious!”
How do you have a microwave, I wanted to ask. But the light changed and we drove off, waving goodbye.
Two months passed and the weekend of the Blue and Gold game arrived. Every year in late-April, Notre Dame plays Notre Dame. It is, in many ways the perfect football game for Irish fans because Notre Dame always wins. Alumni and other Irish junkies come from all over the country to enjoy a bit of ND football in the offseason. And, just like the regular season, our neighborhood becomes one of the main routes to and from the stadium. As the post-game traffic was dying down, I ventured into the front yard with my children to do a bit of gardening. While we were pulling weeds, our 125 pound Great Dane began barking.
“Quiet, Ziva!” I shouted as I continued to work. But she didn’t listen. My children frequently ignore my pleas for quiet and the dog is no better. I looked up and the homeless guy from the corner was waking down the street. Seeing Ziva, he stopped, “She’s a beauty,” he said with genuine admiration.
“That she is. And friendlier than she sounds.”
“Oh, I know that. I had a dog that looked just like her. Genghis Bacchus McGee, but I called him McGee for short. That boy weighted 200 pounds and scared the neighbors to death but he was just a bundle of love.”
As we talked, my children and dog become very quiet. My daughter corralled her younger brother near as if to protect him from the strange man on the sidewalk and both moved behind Ziva. Perhaps I wanted to use that moment to teach my children about compassion and human dignity or perhaps I really found the man’s stories about his dog compelling (what dog lover doesn’t enjoy stories about interesting, beloved dogs). Either way, we kept talking. I learned about how he shared joints with McGee, using the marijuana to calm the rambunctious one-hundred-plus pounds of pup during his early years. We complained about the Notre Dame fans who sped down the road unconcerned for my children’s safety and the grumpy drivers who hurled insults at the beggars on the corner as if the gameday traffic were somehow their fault. We commiserated about the neighborhood teens and their petty larceny—they’d stolen a friend of mine’s phone while she helped her kids on the slide, simply because it was sitting on the park bench (they later returned it) and they’d just burned his tent and sleeping bag a few days earlier.
As he finished his story about the tent, an uncomfortable silence fell between us. What is a stolen and returned iPhone compared to a lost home?
“I might have some work later this summer, out back, if your interested,” I blurted out, not even sure if the offer were true.
“Absolutely. Just holler and I’ll come. You know where to find me.”
“That I do….do you want some food? A drink? It’s pretty hot…”
“Well, if you had a Pepsi, I’d take one.”
“I do. Just a minute.” Turning to my kids, I hesitated. “Come on, kids. I’m going to get this gentleman a drink.” As the words left my mouth I felt horrid. Turning to the man, I fumbled an explanation, “I worry about them with the street and all…”
“Their not getting past so long as I’m here,” the man replied, looking straight at me as if to call my bluff.
“You can stay here kids, just don’t go into the street.” I turned and walked away immediately, not watching to see what my children did. Returning a few minutes later with a Pepsi, banana, and Clif bar, I found my kids had followed me most of the way but stopped at the door. Seeing their fear, I realized what I had done—for an instant treated this neighbor like a kidnapper and they saw it. If he lived in the house next-door rather than camping in the woods out back, I would never have told my children to follow me. Wishing to undo some of the damage, I walked over to the man and handed him the food. After he’d taken it, I stretched out my hand, “I’m Jessica. What’s your name?”
“John.” He hesitated for an instant and took my hand. “Thank you very much for the Pepsi, young lady. You just let me know when you want that work done.”
“I will. I know where to find you.” As he walked on, I watched him and wondered if I’d actually hire him later in the summer.
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Thank you for sharing your story about the homeless man John, who you know where to find. We all react in a similar way, if we are honest. If you do speak to John again, would you ask him if he would allow his photograph to appear on the website of Bethlehem House, Tasmania, please? We are a charitable
shelter for homeless men and I’d like people to be able to see his lovely smile and see the human through the homelessness. So many images are of a sad or derelict human and they do not convey what I would like to show the world: that we can bring a smile and some comfort into their lives.
If you would be so kind as to allow it too, I would dearly love to have this photograph you took of John on the new website we are building.
Stephanie Meikle, CEO Bethlehem House Tasmania Inc
Stephanie, Thank you so much for your comment!
An update on John…after months of spending time together, encouraging him about social services, driving him to doctors appointments and the like, he finally filed for public housing. While it took him a while to get everything sorted, in January he moved into a unit of his own! I still see him occasionally, but he’s been off the streets and is no longer begging.