These stories begin after our family had experienced a form of homelessness.
Faces of Jesus
Lying to Jesse
I’ve just spent $100 on books about missionaries.
I’m sitting in my car outside the Christian bookstore trying to read about a guy from Pakistan who takes a stand for Christ and gets stabbed for it, trying to distance myself as I feel the Holy Spirit stirring around in my chest, and trying to ignore the annoyingly wavering voice that’s floating across the parking lot from some guy who’s stumbling around asking patrons for change.
-Just leave. You couldn’t read inside, too noisy. Got sucked into that round-table discussion with those street evangelists…-
They’re good contacts… I argue back.
-But you lost hours. Just go home.-
I turn pages.
In the back of my van sit garbage bags full of blankets, pillows, and clothes our family just received for free from the kids’ grandparents’ church. Brand-new stuff that didn’t sell. Items donated to the church for its mission operation in Mexico. The church had so much it offered leftovers to local people who needed them. We don’t need them. We have blankets and bed sheets and clothes. But our rental home is still furnished with the old donations we received when we came back from Zalaam; those kindly given items–some used, some gifted new–to our family of six. Now, right behind me, we have a second set of everything. Including clothes. Sitting right there. Bags of it.
“Excuse me,” he whines through the passenger window.
I look up. “Hi.”
“You like to read?” He nods at the four books on the seat and the one in my hands.
“Yeah,” I say. Oh, man. You even got your laptop out on your lap. I shut the screen. “I’m trying to become an author.”
He’s young. And twitchy. His beard is mere bristles. His eyes blink incessantly.
“So you like words?”
-His voice is so grating,- the thoughts say in my head. –Wave him off. Start the car. Drive away.-
I turn in my seat, examining the situation, being careful not to look into the back of my van. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
“I won’t bother you then. But do you have any change?” His eyes look down at his feet, then up at the sky.
-You bought your books with a credit card. You don’t have any change.-
But I know I’ve got cash in my wallet. I don’t have to look. Three fives. $15…
“Sorry, man. I don’t.”
His head drops again. “I understand.”
I notice his hat. Talk to him like he’s a person, I tell myself. Treat him like he’s more than a handout. “You like the Yankees? I’m from New York.”
He takes off his hat and looks at the Yankee symbol like he’s never noticed it before. Never even thought about baseball.
“Are you from around here?” I try. “Did you grow up here? Are you a hockey fan?”
“Yeah, I’m from here. I live over at the camps.” His look fades away. “…I don’t do the drugs…” He starts to turn to leave. “You don’t have any change?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Hey, what’s your name? I’m Dave.”
And I can’t read.
My phone chimes. It’s a text from one of the street evangelists I’d just met: “God Bless.”
I look into the back of the van and a wave of sorrow comes over me. God blesses. You could’ve given him SOMETHING! Blankets, jeans—
-How awkward would that have been?-
Shut up!… I stuff my computer into my bag and throw the books onto the floor. So stinking’ rich, you and your laptop sitting on your wallet! I dig my wallet out of my pocket, crinkle the bills in a fist and turn the engine key. Fifteen dollars! You could’ve bought this guy a pizza!
I roll forward, checking the right side of the parking lot. He’s not there. Come on! That’s the way he went. Where else could he have gone?
I circle the building. Not there. Not by the dumpster. Not by the building next door.
I pull out onto the street and circle the city block. He should be walking through that car dealership… People don’t just vanish!
I drive for five, ten, fifteen minutes.
I don’t find him.
The ride home is long. My cheeks burn with shame.
‘Jesse’… Can you get any closer to ‘Jesus’? …You lied to Jesus, Dude. Whatever you’ve done to the least of these… whatever you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to Me.
Unloading the bags from our car breaks my heart. My kids run and jump for joy. Matching sheets and blankets. Soft, fluffy, out-of-the-plastic pillows. Brand-new clothes. Boots even. Jeans and shirts and…
I lay down on my bed and hide my face. Jesus, I’m so sorry. I lied to You. I left You hungry and thirsty and comfortless. I tried to make small talk, tried to treat you like a person, but I was lying. My heart… somehow my heart—after all You’ve done for me—is still selfish and greedy and clingy—Like I didn’t just walk in the house with hundreds of dollars worth of free stuff and I couldn’t give away fifteen dollars?! …I am ashamed before You.
I roll off the bed, my girls giggling up and down the hall outside my door. “Dad! Dad! Come see!”
…Thank You, God, for showing me my heart. You are a good Father. Help me to repent…
Under the Overpass
Two Days After Lying To Jesse
I’m on my way to Grandma’s and I get to the turn where I can choose to take the highway or meander through town. Wanting to be open to God’s leading, I ask, “Which way?”
Feels like God says, Through town.
And then as I start to go through town, Under the overpass.
So I make that turn and drive by the dilapidated buildings, the auto repair shops that have seen better days, the concrete walls in need of paint. I spy a lone figure sitting with his back to the support beam of the bridge.
“Already on it.”
I pull into the nearest parking lot and grab ten dollars: five from the driver’s side visor above the steering wheel, and five more from within my hat. How ’bout that, Dave? You just stuffed these bills into place today. Now God’s giving you another chance.
Yup. Hope I don’t blow it.
I cross the street carefully, scanning both for cars and for other people, wanting to make sure this guy’s alone. He is.
“Hi,” I say, stepping up on the sidewalk.
“Hi,” he answers. His voice is older than mine. Gruffer. It’s a smoker’s voice. His clothes are not all the same color, yet they have the same weathered look. The dirt stain on them is evenly spread. “What’s up?”
I’m about three feet from him. I notice his shoes are frayed and he keeps his hands tucked up inside his jacket pockets. I wonder how cracked his skin has become. You’re about to find out.
“Well,” I say, checking again to make sure we’re alone, “I was wondering if you could use ten bucks.”
“Could I?” he laughs.
I hand it to him. Thick hands. Large knuckles. Back into his pockets.
“Thank you. I was just wondering how I was going to eat tonight.”
“You’re welcome.” I squat down next to him. “I’m Dave.”
“Jack,” he says, and we shake again. “You live around here?”
“Yeah. Do you?”
“Right here,” he points down first, then around the corner of the bridge to a space between it and a fence. Besides his broken chair, his possessions consist of a rusted red bike, a thrown-away cooler, and a big tin bucket. There’s a slab of cardboard laying about, but I’m not convinced it’s his.
Next to the bridge, on the other side of the chain-link fence, lays a large open grass field. The concrete underneath us seems more than an unfair exchange for the soft ground surrounded by signs saying Private Property, No Trespassing. This life’s not about ‘fair.’ The metal bars behind me tell me that as well. Jack and I talk briefly of how the city ruined the overpass as a shelter by putting up the metal bars to discourage a homeless camp. “My daughter calls it the cage,” I say sympathetically.
“This city has no heart,” Jack spits.
The sun is changing the light around us to a golden hue as it sets behind the steeple with a cross on the other side of the grassy field.
A train rumbles by, interrupting our ability to talk as it echoes off the underside of the overpass.
I think of my trumpet.
“You like music, Jack?”
“Yeah, I like music.”
“I’m thinking with the acoustics under here, I’d like to come play. Would that be all right with you?”
“All right,” I stand. “I’ll be back sometime.”
“I’ll be here.”
When I arrive back home, I grab another five dollars and a scrap piece of paper. I stuff them both inside my hat to make sure they’ll fit. They do. Then I pull the paper out again, and on it, from memory, I write the words Paul wrote: “Remember the poor, as I have been eager to do.”
Redeem It and Play
The Next Day
“Ha!” Jack laughs in his chair. “You came back!”
I smile as I step out from the morning sun and into the shade of the overpass. This time I’ve parked my van in the McDonald’s parking lot planted right next to this huge mass of concrete gray, the golden arches emblem flying high above, inviting those who drive over us to take a quick detour and fill their bellies. Like before, I’m dressed in my normal jeans-and-T-shirt combo with my scruffed-up New York Yankees hat. My only conscious decision to dress down is to wear my cutting-the-lawn shoes rather than my new hiking ones. They’re stained and peel back a little at the tips, but nowhere near as worn-down-until-they-mold-the-foot as Jack’s shoes.
I hold my black trumpet case up and give it a pat. “I said I’d come.”
“What, fourteen hours ago?” Jack’s amused.
It’s nice to see his eyes crinkle as he smiles. I wonder, Is it because I came back so soon, or came back at all?
There’s no evidence that Jack has moved an inch, except maybe to grab the threadbare blanket that’s draped over his lap. Everything else—bike, bucket, chair—sits in the same position it was in last night. I squat for a bit to chat with him, but he’s curious to hear me play. So I crack open my case and lift out my trumpet.
“Silver,” Jack says. “Don’t see that much these days.” He nods at the case. “How old is that?”
I explain that I don’t know, but that a year ago on Father’s Day I’d had a dream in which a voice said, ‘Go, buy an old trumpet, redeem it, and play hymns in the parks.’ And that after waking up from that dream my wife gave me for my Father’s Day present a hymnal from 1946. I figured I couldn’t ignore the coincidence. I’d better listen. So I went, bought this old trumpet, fixed it up as best as I could and started playing hymns in the parks around town.
“Huh,” Jack leans back against the canvas of his chair and shuts his eyes.
I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I’m suddenly thinking about the influx of homeless people our city has seen in the last year and the recent legislation passed to allow people to camp overnight in the parks. That legislation has become a push-button issue for many of those whose homes are near the parks or schools. Trouble’s brewing, but for now there’s rest.
“Aren’t you going to play?” Jack’s eyes are still shut. “I mean, that’s a nice story and all, but the voice didn’t tell you to tell stories. The voice said, ‘Play.’”
My turn to laugh. “I like your humor, Jack.”
“I’m not being funny.”
Mouthpiece warmed up, I play. I only have so many hymns memorized, so I do “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,” “What Child Is This,” and “Joy to the World.” The notes sound clear and full as they bounce around the concrete cavern. The higher notes mute the sounds of the traffic above. The melodic lines soar with purpose as I sing the words in my head, and sometimes with my heart.
After the echo of my last note fades away, Jack sighs, “Must be nice to know what you’re supposed to do and have the chance to do it.”
God Comes to Jack
After I play my trumpet, Jack and I sit in the cool of the shade and listen to the cars hum overhead. I’ve never been great at shooting the breeze. The breeze always moves, and I always miss. So I end up answering Jack’s questions.
“What are you doing here?”
“Playing my trumpet, talking to you.”
“Not that. I mean, ‘Why are you here? What organization are you with? Salvation Army? The health department? What are you doing here?’”
“…I’m hanging out with you.”
“You’re not a pastor or nothing? You’re not with a church?”
“I go to church, but I’m just a dude.”
Jack’s puzzled. “And this ‘dude’ likes to drive around town and sit in the dirt with the homeless?”
I shrug. “You got a reason why I shouldn’t?”
During my morning reading, I come across the passage of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda and I’m struck by the fact that the man had no idea who Jesus was. He didn’t come to Jesus, Jesus came to him.
I think that through over and over so much that I’m not sure if it’s me wanting to make something happen or God prompting me, but all I can picture doing today is getting a mini Gideon Bible into Jack’s hands and showing him these verses. So after dropping the kids off and running through my morning chores, I swing by the overpass and that’s exactly what I do.
Jack has moved his chair into the sun by the chain-link fence where nobody can sneak up on him and, if he dozes off, where he might be woken up by footsteps on the gravel and broken glass. All Jack’s stuff has moved with him. Bucket. Blanket. Bike. He’s flipped the wheels up to the sky and is working on the chain.
I squat in the sunshine and pull the mini Bible from my back pocket. “I was reading today and I kept thinking of you.” I briefly tell the Bethesda story in my own words and Jack asks if he can read it. I find it in John 5 and hand it to him. “You mentioned the other day that you had hurt your back, and today I thought, ‘Why not pray?’”
Jack’s gray dusting-of-a-beard sags a bit on his cheeks. “If you want to…”
I realize this can’t be some long, drawn out prayer. If God’s going to answer, it’s got to be quick. I start first in my head. Jesus, it doesn’t sound like Jack has any hope. Doesn’t sound like he’s coming to You. But who cares? The Bethesda man didn’t come to You either. You came to him! So how ‘bout, “Jesus, I ask that You come to Jack, take the pain from his back, and heal him, make him whole. Amen.”
I don’t shut my eyes. Don’t touch him. None of that.
And Jack stays in his chair.
“Thanks for trying,” he says, “but that’s about what I expected. I did this to myself, working. Being stupid. Being proud. Lifting more than I should’ve and knowing it.” He tilts his head back to rest under his hat. “Not meaning to be disrespectful or discourage your beliefs any, but if there’s a God, He’s not paying any attention to me.”
I drive under the overpass and see that Jack is sleeping on a piece of cardboard. His bike, chair, and bucket are nowhere in sight.
I go to the store and buy Jack a bike lock. Then I head over and find him shuffling around, clinging to the rails of the cage under the bridge, totally unable to walk. All his stuff is gone. Somebody stole it Friday night. I help Jack sit down and then pull the bike lock out of my bag. “Sorry, I should have given that to you sooner.”
He laughs, “Now I just need to find a bike.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Just a minute.” I’ve parked across the street again, so I cross back over to my van and from the trunk unload the 15 speed green bike my friend Norm gave me months ago.
I wheel this bike back across the street and Jack’s weeping. “Thank you, man. Thank you.”
Inside my car, I also happen to have a pink blanket we set aside to donate but never got around to, and a folding bleacher-seat cushion I had gotten for free from an auto parts store a few weeks back.
“Are you kidding me?!” Jack can’t stop crying.
My whole head smiles as I say, “Jack, you can’t tell me God’s not watching out for you.”
Jack wipes his cheeks. “I take it back. I take it back.”
Jesus, Hiding in Plain Sight
God’s not subtle.
I’ve just dropped my son off at youth group, and with two hours to kill I’m about to try grocery shopping at night. I’m hoping the store’s empty. No crowds. No lines. Quick and easy. But as I’m driving down the four-lane street, the sun setting on my left, I see the shadow of a man sitting on the curb of a side street.
Gaetz Street. A homeless man, on Gaetz Street. Yeah, I get it.
I turn off at the next corner, circle the block and parallel park. I grab five bucks from the inside of my hat, roll it up in my right hand, climb out and observe from a distance. The man doesn’t move. He sits like a stone statue, layered in black and gray clothing. Alone. There is no one else around at all. The street seems like a poor choice. Yeah, there’s a sidewalk, but the businesses here are drive-up, not walk-up. And up-scale. An eco-friendly clothing store and a notary public? Why here?
A car turns onto the street and passes the man without a pause, the driver slurping through her green Starbucks straw on her way to the townhouses behind me.
The man hasn’t even looked up. He’s still staring at the sidewalk.
I approach slowly.
Maybe hiding in plain sight is the strategy here. Don’t move and you become a fixed object like a fire hydrant. Then at night you can duck into the shelter of the parking garage because no one has chased you away.
I check the angle of the sun on its course for the day.
Man, if you sit here all day, you picked a place that will not get any shade. None. Do you just not care?
Since his face is down and to the right, I walk to his right side and sit down on the curb. “Hi.”
His voice comes clear, with a gentle resonance as though he’d be a good singer. “Hi.” But he doesn’t look up. His hair is a mass of dreadlocks—not for style’s sake—and his hands are dried, cracked and swollen. He blinks a glance in my direction.
I look away, too. I’m not here to stare. “Nice night.”
A few seconds go by before he says, “Yeah.”
So I sit and wait, listening to the cars roll by on the main street, feeling the gentle breeze they make, watching the sky turn orange. “I like that shade of orange. My favorite color is blue, but that orange is making me think I need a second favorite color. You have a favorite color?”
“… … Green.”
He’s not stoned, he’s not high, his voice is too crisp and even. I don’t think he’s hindered, I think he’s just not used to having somebody to talk to.
But I don’t push it. I enjoy about fifteen minutes with him in quiet. Two dudes, just sitting on the curb.
When I do get up, I say, “Well, my name’s Dave.”
“See you around, Lars.”
Back in my car, I see him notice the five dollars I left on the sidewalk. And I think, Let’s get him some food. So I drive to the grocery store and buy some oranges and bananas and any other plain, healthy food I can fit in a single plastic bag along with two rolls of toilet paper—because, hey, I’d want some toilet paper.
I drive back and approach Lars again. “Hey, Lars,” I start to hold out the bag.
“No, no,” he almost lifts his hands from his knees in protest.
“Come on, man. There’s some healthy stuff in there.” I place the bag on the ground.
He says, “No.”
“… Okay, then,” I back away, still leaving the bag on the ground. “Maybe you’ll bump into someone who can use it.”
I don’t linger in my car, but I do see Lars take the bag.
Still, that was the wrong way to do that with him. If you leave it, he can find it. If you hand it to him, there’s shame in that. He feels shame.
Sorry, Lars. …God, he hadn’t eaten all day. What is this town gonna do about the homeless? You’re clearly laying them at our gates. We’re the rich man. That bag of groceries? Scraps that fell from my wallet. We can do so much more! What are we going to do?
Jesus Wears Johnny-Cash Black
I’ve learned. The next time I see Lars I don’t hand him anything. I say “Hi” and sit on the sidewalk next to him for a long and intentionally silent conversation, keeping five bucks hidden under my hand on the curb.
It’s almost nice. I mean, twenty-five minutes of being still, letting the world move around me, not being out in the traffic and endless flow of thoughts about ‘The Things Of Life To Get Done’ could be relaxing. It could be… except I keep thinking about Jesus saying we should help the needy and invite the stranger into our homes. Sure, that was a different culture. But what if we did that now?
I picture Lars’ fingernails trimmed short, the cuticles not looking as though he’s clawed through the dirt. I wonder if he would clean up his beard or shave it off. Would his hair even wash out clean? If he knew I had clippers, would he ask me to buzz his head?
Would he talk after a can of soup and a loaf of bread? Could I find some clean clothes to fit him? New shoes? Old shoes? I compare our shoe sizes. His feet are smaller than mine. So are his legs. His one shirt is so threadbare his right shoulder is completely exposed to the sun. I’ve surely got some T-shirts…
I drive home and stare at my closet. Are all my T-shirts blue or gray? Lars wears black. All black. Black shirt, black pants, black shoes…
You know what, Dave? If it were you, you’d be thankful, yes, but would you really want someone’s old shirt out of their closet? Just go buy the dude some shirts. I mean, if you could see he was Jesus—
He’d already be in my house…
All the way to the store, the excuses come.
I have kids—girls—and people are weird. The laws here are such that he could become a squatter and never leave, and we don’t even own our place. I’d be subletting without permission…
I wander the aisles, guessing at his size, relieved when I find I have a choice: black, in long or short sleeves.
I buy both.
Bag ready, complete with receipt, I sit down next to Lars again, shirts out of sight beside me, waiting to be found when I leave. The pavement from the street makes our world hot. We still don’t talk, so I drift in thought until I end up quietly wondering how often Jesus felt lonely…
Street Drugs and Jesus
Jack doesn’t see me coming so he’s off guard at first, wondering if I’ve noticed that he has signalled to this other guy to put some stuff away. The way Jack talks, the way his mind seems so clear, his thoughts so logical, plus the I’m-above-them attitude he has about the people who live in the library next to the park—all this had led me to believe that it could be possible that Jack didn’t use drugs. Not every homeless person is addicted to drugs.
But now I have a choice: pretend I didn’t notice, or show that I did.
I choose to show. I calmly watch this other guy finish gathering their substances into his hand and then slide his hand into a backpack. Then, talking straight at this other guy, I sit down like I’m there to stay and say, “Hey. I’m Dave. How you doing?”
There’s a ten-second pause, a hey-is-this-guy-for-real moment between the two of them. The second man is adjusting his hat to further hide his face, settling his back against the concrete support for the overpass, looking to disappear.
But Jack draws him out with, “This is the guy I was telling you about! The guy who brought me my bike and blanket!”
The other man’s face brightens. “Oh, really?” I get a genuine grin. “I thought Jack was lying to me like the son—”
Jack cuts him off. “Not around Dave. He’s a Bible man. Been preachin’ at me.” Jack teases me. “I’m just kidding, Dave. You’ve been real good about not being all high-and-mighty better than us.”
“That’s ‘cause I’m not any better than you.”
“So you are judging us?” this other man wants to know. “Aren’t you supposed to not judge, lest you too be judged? Doesn’t that mess with your redemption or your sanctification or some weird—”
Jack coughs over top of him, warning again.
I hold my left hand up to signal to Jack that my ears can take it. I’d rather hear the man out. I smile at him, my own beard just a little less scruffy, and offer my right hand. “Dude, what’s your name?” Tell me your story. You’re quoting Bible verses and throwing around Christian terms. You’d have my attention anyway, but go ahead and string me along. Tell me your theology.
And without asking out loud, he does.
“It’s not that there is no God–any idiot could see there has to be one–but it’s that God doesn’t care. He made everything, set it in motion, and walked away from the table. We are on our own. Why do animals eat each other? Doesn’t seem right. Why do people try to cover the world in pavement? We’re only killing the environment, the trees. Why do we steal honey from the bees? We take their honey and they die. Not all of them. We leave enough so they can make us some more. Birds are beautiful. Butterflies are stunning. They both know to fly away in the winter–they have this map that they intuitively use. But us? We’re stupid fools. Winter comes and we haven’t left in time, don’t even know which way is south. If there’s a God, why is he against us? Our minds could be so much stronger. Human beings have so much potential. But God went and put addictive chemicals in plants, knowing that we’d find them and use them—not all of us, of course, we’re not all strung out all the time. I’m sure you’ve never smoked a joint in your life…”
I consent. He’s right. I’ve never smoked a joint.
Nope. Cigars, yes.
“You’re a cigar man?”
“They were the traditional you-had-a-baby cigar.”
“You have kids? How old are you?”
I always get this question. “How old do I look?” And then it’s my turn to tell my story. And my theology. A little. Not much. I point out where I think we can agree. The world is not as it should be and we all know it. War, starvation—we’re to blame for it because we chose and continue to choose to do wrong. All of us. We cannot fix ourselves. We need God to do that. So God spent a long time setting up the scene for Jesus to come and give us a chance to begin to be made right. And He’s coming back again. “Man, I am looking forward to Jesus making things right, that’s for sure.”
“…You think Jesus is for real.”
“Yeah. He changed my life. He’s changing it now…”
Jack frowns a little. “I won’t argue that. But if God is real, why doesn’t he just show up? If he wants me to believe in him, here I am. Just show up and I’ll believe.”
I lift an eyebrow towards Jack’s bike.
Jack shifts in his chair. “That’s not what I meant.”
Jack gets a room in somebody’s basement.
I invite him to a healing service where people will pray for his back. He cancels when I come to pick him up.
I pick him up, take him for coffee, and sit and watch small airplanes land on the mini runway while sharing life stories.
Jack gets kicked out of the basement he’s staying in because the landlord wants to sell the place. Winter is coming and Jack needs a place to stay. I can’t sublet to him because his stories have started to have holes in them, spots he’s skipping. The truth no longer lines up. I go through all the possibilities with him and find out that Jack’s been kicked out of the Salvation Army and the local food shelter. Jack won’t go near the library and he’s no longer welcome at McDonald’s.
Jack’s moving-out day has come, but I can’t find him. For months.
Winter rolls in, buries my car in snow, and knocks over the telephone pole at the end of our driveway. We are stranded without power or heat until the roads get plowed. Then we head to the in-laws so we can sleep in their basement and be warm.
I read in the paper that under the bridge where Jack used to be people set up tents to survive the storms. One of the tents collapsed under the weight of the snow and suffocated a girl to death. Another tent caught fire. The city came and cleared the area out and put up an even larger fence.
The snow keeps coming.
I can finally drive around. The roads are still ice. I find Jack, pull over, and we sit in the car for two hours, running the heat and talking about the people who died and the spiritual realm. I lay out my testimony of Jesus in my life. Jack says he believes there’s Something or Someone, but he’s got too many unanswered questions.
I find Jack back under the bridge. He’s strung out of his mind on something, totally incoherent except for when he starts yelling at me that I only ever show up right before my volunteer shift at the hospital so that I can have an excuse to walk away.
I can’t find Jack anywhere and the fentanyl on the street is killing people left and right…
On Thursday God pokes me to go play my trumpet. So I go to the first park I ever played in, the one full of soccer and baseball fields. As I play, the notes of the worship songs echo back at me off the surrounding mountains.
I’ve played, but feel like I still need to play.
I drive to the McDonald’s and play under the overpass. My lips get tired, but I realize I don’t have to think about the notes. It’s like I’m singing through my trumpet to God.
And now, I still need to play.
So at noon I go to the town center and stand outside the doors of the storefront church. My notes bounce down to the bookstore, the candy store, and the health-nut café. A smattering of shoppers use the crosswalk on the one-way street. Besides them, I’m alone. I shut my eyes in praise until I hear…
“Jack? Oh man, am I glad to see you!”
“How’s it going, Buddy?”
“I thought you were dead.”
Jack relates how two of his friends died this last summer: one from an overdose, one from a home invasion. He goes on and on about how the one guy he had known ten years ago had been a gang leader and a bad guy. But then he had changed. “He kept telling me he’d opened his heart to God,” Jack says, “and I could see the difference. He was a totally different guy. Got married, treated his wife and kids well…”
I hope Jack is listening to himself.
“But the gang found him. Shot him dead. He used to talk about demons following him around…”
Jack has a huge bag of recyclable cans with him. We take it to the bottle plant, and I go inside and sort through it all—beer cans, soda cans, wine and water bottles. As I get the money from the girl behind the counter, I ask about Jack. Sure enough, he’s been kicked out of this place too.
I take Jack his money and agree to meet him again tomorrow at 3:00 at a coffee shop.
Friday comes and Jack’s not there.
I’m conflicted. My evening is booked. I’ve got to go home, cook dinner for everyone, then get them out the door for a church fundraiser, but here I am killing time, waiting for Jack who probably won’t show up. Wouldn’t be the first time.
I check my watch. God, I’d rather do this another day.
And then Jack arrives.
Across from the coffee shop is a pizza place selling pizza by the slice. I decide to skip coffee and take Jack for pizza. It’s cheaper than doing coffee and buying him a specialty sandwich. We sit down, Jack eats, I talk about the peer pressure my son is facing at school.
Jack takes a turn, and I find I’m not really listening. God is talking in my ear almost incessantly, pushing me to say a few words, a half-sentence.
I interrupt Jack with the half-sentence I’ve got, and the conversation shifts. Words flow out of my mouth until I stop. Jack’s turn.
I try to listen, but God is literally in my ear again, repeating over and over the next prompt. I take it, and the conversation shifts again. I realize God is covering the ground of truth, honesty, conscience, guilt, sin and confession.
Jack’s eyes start watering.
And now God’s doing it again. Again, I’ve got a set of words in my ear. I start to say them and find the rest is spoken in my ear word-for-word as I go.
“We can’t clean ourselves. One of Jesus’ closest friends wrote that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us. Jesus does the forgiving. Jesus does the cleansing. All we do is confess. We can be super sorry about the stuff we’ve done, but there’s a difference between being sorry and standing before a judge and confessing guilt.”
“I’ve tried that,” Jack says. “Doesn’t work for me.”
“Well, how’s your relationship with Jesus?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t have one.”
“That’s your problem. Jack, God is knocking on your heart right now. You know it. He’s saying, ‘Open up. Let me in.’ He’ll do the same for you that He did for your friend. Where do you think your friend is now, the guy who got shot?”
Jack rolls his eyes heavenward and they’re pooling with tears.
“Jack, God wants your heart.”
“I know,” he wipes his eyes. “I feel it. But I can’t do that right now. I don’t have much stuff, don’t have many things, but I do have ‘stuff’ in my life that I can’t put down. You know what I mean. I can’t give it up. I love it too much.”
The Devil, My Daughter, and the Town that Almost Cares
My daughter is teary-eyed as she gets in the car. I’m glad I pick her up because a thirty minute bus ride right now would really suck.
“Remember that religion-studies project?” she asks me. “I had to switch groups and I broke down crying in front of the whole class.”
Social studies. Comparing religions. The teacher had not limited the kids to the big five. Instead of researching religions that have plenty of sources, the kids formed groups and then debated with each other over what most appealed to them. One boy in her group refused to consider anything other than witchcraft or voodoo. The Christian girl in her group couldn’t understand why this would bother my daughter and pressured her to go along with it all.
My daughter says she gets this a lot from this girl. “‘I’m a Christian, but we’re allowed to do this, watch that, read this… What’s up with your parents?'”
I try to answer with, “The devil won’t attack everyone the same way. If he did, we’d unify. We’d get together and resist.” And then I explain that since we’ve lived in a non-western culture, we’ve experienced the spiritual world like other people haven’t. Stuff that makes us as parents say, “Um… that’s a bad idea. That’s not for us.”
My daughter tells me she couldn’t be part of presenting a religious set of beliefs that taught people to spear dolls in order to bring harm to others, and she wouldn’t dare touch witchcraft.
I ask if she switched because of us.
She says no. “I just couldn’t do it.”
“I’m proud of you, and Jesus is too. Because you didn’t compromise your heart, that’s like standing for Him. You made that decision all by yourself, in class, spur of the moment, facing rejection and humiliation.”
“And name-calling and looks of confusion,” she adds, wiping tears.
My wife and I attend a small group Bible study that’s part of a home church. They’re starting a book entitled “DON’T Invite Them To Church.” It’s all about going out, knowing your neighbors, and living Christ-like lives in the community. Sounds good.
Not to follow the Bible group’s instruction, but just because we’re already friends, I invite over my youngest daughter’s best friend and her parents for dinner. We eat homemade naan and buttered chicken. They totally engage when the conversation shifts to the homeless population in our town. They lean forward over the table, ready to hear more, wanting to do something. (They’re not Christian.)
I meet up at the mall with my buddy Wes, the Gideon. He always has a trunk load of scripture to hand out, he’s great at steering conversations, and he prays for people and sometimes they get healed. I like to watch and learn. Occasionally, I talk. Most of the time, I pray.
When we get to the food court, my New York Yankee hat pulls me into a conversation with four elderly folk who just happen to attend the same church as Wes. They ask if I go around with Wes often.
“When I can,” I answer. “I started today by hanging out with a homeless guy near Gaetz Street.”
“You mean Lars?” asks a man with a white beard.
The woman next to him says, “He’s been there for nearly ten years.”
When I asked him this morning, he said six. Huh.
“He just leans against that wall,” White Beard says. “Ever see the condition of it after he moves? Just a big, slimy grease spot. He used to stand out in front of the 7/11. The wall got so dirty they put a cash machine there to cover up the stain. When he sits on the sidewalk, he leaves the same mark.”
“Why can’t Mental Health do something for him?” another woman complains.
The reason I’m not good at conversation is playing out in my mind. I can’t answer with: Hang on! You know his name, but you haven’t said spit about anything you’ve done for him. You’ve known he was there for how many years? Ten? And he’s still there? All I’m hearing is how dirty he is! I’ve only hung out with him a dozen times in the last year but I know his birthday’s in October, his favorite color is green, he used to ride a motorcycle…He’s a person!
I answer with, “I bring him granola bars and Tim Horton’s gift cards so he can have a place to get warm.”
They just shrug.
Then White Beard says, “I tried to give him a snow suit once. He wouldn’t take it.”
I offer, “I’ve found he won’t take stuff handed to him, but if you leave it on the ground, he’ll pick it up.”
The one woman goes back to complaining about why the health care system doesn’t take care of him. “Get him a place to clean up and dry off. Is there really no housing available?”
No one mentions the idea of actually inviting him inside their own home, letting him take a shower in their own bathroom, clip his nails with their nail clippers, wash his hair with their shampoo.
I’ve thought about it myself. A lot.
I know all the reasons why I haven’t done it.
Do I really know the Reason why I should?
Day after day, Lars leans against a building that lets costumers choose between hundreds of types of carpet and wood flooring. Across the street is an apartment building we’ve watched go up together. Next to the apartments, a storage unit for people to house all their extra possessions. And next to the flooring building, a storefront church.
It’s not ironic that this is where Lars leans to stay out of the wind, rain, and snow–it’s prophetic! A block away from Gaetz Street sits a homeless man who says, “I don’t want to be outside anymore.”
What are we gonna do about it?
My daughter’s doing the right thing. She’s standing by her beliefs.
My youngest daughter’s friends want to help. And they have no beliefs.
Shame on this town, me included, that Lars is still there.
We’re “Church People” and We’ll Help
I’m sitting on the sidewalk with Lars. We’re under an awning in the rain. Like usual, his head hangs toward his knees. I’ve offered him some granola bars again, and even apologized, “You know, I never even asked if you like these, or if you’re allergic to nuts or anything.”
“No. They’re fine. Thanks.”
After about fifteen minutes, I notice that a woman on her apartment balcony across the street is waving at us. I wave back. She gives me a thumbs up and mouths the words “Way to go! Good job!” at me.
But I’ve been humbled by the Saturday before. I may know a lot about this guy, but I’m not helping him like I want to. And I think, All I’m doing is keeping him company. We need to do more…
My wife and I go out for coffee with a married couple we know. Lars comes up in conversation and my wife mentions an event hosted by a big church in town. It’s happening this Saturday. “You guys should check it out.”
An old woman wearing a red dress gets out of her red car and walks across the street toward us, her bright red hair glowing in the morning sun. “Who are you guys with? Salvation Army? Housing development?”
“No,” I say. “We’re just people.”
Aaron and I are sitting on the sidewalk, talking to Lars, and apparently this old woman feels like we have sympathetic ears because she begins to unloaded her story. She’s nearly 80 years old and her husband died in her arms just a few months ago in their trailer. When he died, his pension stopped and she couldn’t afford to keep the trailer parked where it was. She has talked to everybody she can in government, and now she’s stuck waiting, looking for a place to live. “The housing market is squeezing seniors out onto the streets!”
Aaron and I offer what we know: a local church is hosting a gathering of support services–
She cuts us off with, “Once ‘church people’ find out I’m a sex change, they won’t have anything to do with me.”
I’m not surprised at her experience, but I don’t know what to say. It’s not until Aaron and I are driving away that I think of what I should have come back with: “We would help–and we’re church people.”
The Church-Hosted Event
Aaron and I park around back, the parking lot is packed with cars of volunteers. The church building is big, men walk around wearing yellow SECURITY T-shirts, and dozens of volunteers point us through the maze of things offered for those in need.
People can see a chiropractor, get their hair washed and cut, meet with counselors, get their picture taken for documents and records, go to the make-over room and have their feet or face treated, have their hearing tested, receive free clothing, eat two meals, and meet up with representatives from just about every service provider in the city.
“I’m overwhelmed,” I tell Aaron after we’ve collected a bag of clothing for Lars. We have a coat, socks, shirts, jeans and a belt for him. Everyone we talk to knows who Lars is.
“Yes, we know who you mean,” say the ladies at the clothing table.
“People are aware of him,” says a service provider. “There are lots of people looking out for him.”
“I know exactly who you’re talking about,” says Scott, the Salvation Army worker. “I’ve offered him all kinds of help. He’s got it fixed in his mind to not accept anything,” Scott taps his head. “You’ll notice he wears the same winter coat, the same wrap-around blanket, the same boots…”
“We picked up this bag of stuff for him,” Aaron tells Scott.
“He won’t take it,” Scott answers. “He’ll say, ‘No thanks, I’m fine.’ If you leave him a bag of stuff, it’ll overwhelm him.”
We leave, and I recognize that even in what I thought was simply sharing information–everything I could tell anybody, they already knew–that way down deep this information had become a little seed of pride. God, pride in my heart over knowledge of a homeless man? Please, forgive me!
Back to Lars
Aaron and I find Lars where we’d left him. We put a covered plastic plate of breakfast food and a very small bag of toothpaste and bathroom stuff on the sidewalk next to us, then sit quietly for a while. We end up chatting about the cars passing by. Do none of them actually come to a complete stop at the railroad crossing?
Lars lifts his head to watch with us. Every car that drives up to the stop sign at the railway tracks slows down, but rolls through. For the longest time, no one stops. When one woman in a white car actually stops and looks both ways, a work truck towing a trailer almost plows into her. Aaron and I laugh, Lars chuckles.
On the way back to my place, Aaron and I talk about how amazing and loving the church was to host this event. All those people were willing to help.
And then Lars, unwilling to be helped.
But we understand.
“If I was Lars, and smelled like he does–”
“Cigarettes and pee.”
“I wouldn’t be able to walk into an event like that. I’d stop at the door and say, ‘No thanks.'”
We decide to divide up the bag and slowly give Lars one thing at a time.
After buying groceries, I sit down on the sidewalk and deliver a winter coat.
“No thanks. I’m fine.”
“Lars, I heard it’s going to snow this weekend.”
“Oh, man. Really?”
“You’ve got a coat, but you need to layer up. I want you to make it through the winter.”
He laughs again.
“No, I mean it.”
Lots of people are rooting for you, Buddy.
Winter’s First Blast: Homeless Survive?
The winds come howling down the valley, sweeping across the fields, beating against length of our house. I go to the store, buy more plastic window wrap, and winterize the majority of our storm windows. Like last winter, the plastic swells out to form a large, cold bubble barrier.
The snow drops. Not a lot, but enough to get my kids running outside with gloves on to build a mini snowman. It is cold.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…
Everyday, I’m a broken record, saying the same thing to my oldest two kids before they step outside to go to school: “It’s winter. You have a coat. Wear it!”
Dinner has been potato soup and lentil stew for half the week. I push the grocery cart through the store on a quest for more soup ingredients. The weather has warmed up a little, but still, this is my window to try new recipes before it gets really cold again. I pile up all kinds of old/new veggies.
As I turn the ignition key to head home, the shoe box full of granola bars at my feet reminds me of Lars and I decide I have to try to find him in spite of the milk in my trunk. It only takes a few minutes. I park out of sight and debate with myself what to give him.
He’s not wearing the jacket you left him.
Because it warmed up, or because he never used it?
Do you give him anything more than these granola bars?
Is he going to wear these pants and belt?
I carry the pants and belt in the bag and walk through the bushes to the sidewalk. “Hey, Lars.”
“Hey. How are you doing?”
Wow. That’s the first time you’ve asked me a question! “I’m okay. You? Are you warming up your hands there?” I drop the bag on my other side and squat next to him.
Lars keeps rubbing his thick hands together. It’s an endless motion today.
I look closely. No jacket under his usual black, grimey one. “Hey, you made it through the snow. Did you layer up?”
“I made it. I’m here.” He hasn’t answered my question. He didn’t keep the extra jacket.
I squat for a few more minutes. I wonder what he’ll do with these pants. Maybe he’ll use the belt.
I’m stuck, Jesus. You identify Yourself with the poor and the broken. You tell us that if we have two coats, we’re to give to the one who has none. Did Lars give the coat away? Or is he intentionally refusing help of a certain kind? Jesus, I want to look at this guy and see You, but that’s hard anymore. You, at least occasionally, I can understand. Won’t You help Lars receive help?
Christmas for Lars
Most of the time I find Lars slumped against the wall with his head down, and I wonder if he’s dozing.
Today I observe that over the years the awning has kept the sidewalk immediately near the building looking smooth. Just beyond the awning, where the rain has fallen freely, the cement is pock-marked. I think of Lars’ soul: so bare, so exposed, only sheltering under this two-foot overhang. If not for this metal structure and canvas, how much more damaged would he be?
Upon seeing me, Lars brightens and relaxes.
I ask him how he spent the night.
I hand him my typical Nature Valley granola bars and a five dollar bill, hoping he’ll save the five bucks for tonight and get himself out of the cold for a few minutes. Someone has given him new boots–and convinced him to wear them! The new gloves? He’s not sure about them yet. They’re sitting on the sidewalk, wearing their price tags.
Lars relaxes enough to drift into a slumbering sleep.
When he stirs, I say a few things to let him know I’m still there: “Seagulls are out today. Why are they so far from shore? The wind is pushing the clouds that way. Should get some sun by afternoon.”
Thirty minutes is a long time to sit on the sidewalk, not really talking. So while Lars sleeps, I look up at the cars constantly passing by. I make eye contact when I can. Smile at everyone. Smile bigger at confused looks.
One man, beaten down, dejected, slumped against a wall in dirty clothing easily goes unnoticed.
A second man, facing the crowd, smiling brightly and waving, plunked down on the pavement drawing all eyes to the broken man who mutters in his sleep… yeah, that’s worth doing.
I hope Lars is off the street for Christmas.
I doubt it, but I hope.
There was an Old Lady… a Sex-Change, Homeless, Old Lady
Just as I’m walking out of Rona, pieces in hand to fix my kitchen sink, she enters. She who had been a he. I recognize her from when Aaron and I were sitting on the sidewalk with Lars. Today she’s wearing a long winter coat and a wide-brimmed hat. Her hair is still neon red.
I turn back around and consider heading into the store to say Hi, but she’s dragging a suitcase behind her and is already being helped by a sales rep. She’s still homeless.
I waffle about sticking around as I walk to my car. God, is this Your timing?
I’ll wait outside, but not for long. I just want to get out of here. I’m sick. I want that stupid sink fixed…
You have a sink. You’ll fix it today. Patience.
I wait five minutes.
She walks out.
I wave and explain as I approach, “Hi. We met the other week on the sidewalk. How are you doing? Do you have a place yet?”
The conversation is a little one-sided. She sold everything left from her marriage–reading chair, her husband’s oil lamp collection–everything except her car and a small camper. Now she’s being hassled about where she can park her camper. Our town’s Walmart isn’t safe anymore. The mall security men threaten to get her towed. Random stories from her sex change and the abuse she used to get from the cops get thrown into the mix in snippets.
All I can say is, “I’m sorry.”
Because I am.
She tells me how the moments of her husband’s death have changed her. She mentions that, “Hopefully, when we die, we go someplace better than this. Is it me? Is it because I’m old, or does the world seem like it’s getting worse?”
I think of dialing the conversation back to the hope of heaven. I could mention Jesus coming back and the world being made right…
But at this moment, she needs someone to agree with her. Wrong has been done to her. Systematic, bureaucratic wrong. She has been beaten and violated in the past and she’s being harassed now for being homeless and helpless. Throwing the ‘you-need-Jesus’ blanket statement at her would be… wrong.
She needs to be heard.
“Thank you for stopping,” she says as we shake hands goodbye. “Thank you for caring.”
Is That Jesus?
I haven’t seen Jack since some time in October. I was in Tim Horton’s, frustrated that I needed to get a job and couldn’t just make it happen, angry that any job would take away time from me being able to hang out with Jack or anyone else on the street, and annoyed that every time I saw Jack I was buying him lunch or coffee. Not that I begrudged him those things. He needed them. But the catch of needing a job so I could afford to do this kind of stuff with this guy–and even more so–but knowing that the job would take me away from it all, well that just sucked. It also sucked that every time I “made an appointment” to catch up with Jack at some place on a certain day, he wouldn’t show. I was in a bad mood when I left Tim’s, and I haven’t seen Jack since, even though I’ve looked for him.
Lars, however, I’ve seen a lot. It’s just hard. I keep bringing him granola bars because that’s the only food he’ll take. He hides them in his coat pockets or up his sleeves so no one else can find them…
One day I went to hand him some granola bars and my free hand touched his shoulder. It was just a point of contact, a natural move, maybe two seconds long. But in that moment my eyes popped open and I saw Jesus hugging this guy. The kind of hug that’s a lift-you-off-your-feet-cuz-I’m-so-much-stronger-than-you hug, but at the same time a hug that just held him. Through that simple touch, Jesus embraced this guy.
When was the last time he was hugged? Touched kindly? Lovingly?
I almost cried out, the experience was so jarring.
I couldn’t think about it for months. I’d be driving on that side of town and know I’d need to go visit and feed Lars, and I’d want to hang out with him and say nothing, but the Jesus aspect of it made it difficult to want to do. I’d still go, but it was hard.
Why? Because Jesus was self-identifying with this guy.
With this guy who hasn’t bathed in forever. Who can’t lift his head up anymore. Who can’t look me in the eye.
And when Lars had to switch locations (he moved storefronts) and stopped finding an alley to urinate in but just sat there, half asleep, peeing through his pants, a long puddle trickling away on the pavement, he really began to smell. It became difficult to breathe around him or have a conversation.
I keep going. It’s getting worse. He’s more filthy, more beaten down…
But Jesus loves him. Jesus identifies with him. Lars is so broken he can do next to nothing to help himself. He certainly can’t lift himself out of the pit he is in.
And we are all the same. He is wretched, poor, and needy. We, in our sins, are wretched, poor, and needy–unable to save ourselves at all.
Being with Lars makes the gospel so clearly a gift. We cannot earn our hugs from Jesus.
But we can find him on the street corner and gently touch his shoulder.
The Square in Which I Live
I drew this while covering a study hall. I needed to express what I felt when being with Lars, what he must feel, and I wanted to engage the students in conversation.
This is actually my third attempt at this drawing, all in the same class. The first two were too disproportionate. I wanted the folded look, and even how the shoulder is squared off, to show the box that he’s becoming.
You know when you go grocery shopping and you get that cart with the bad wheel in the front? The one that sticks, or lumps along, or pulls your cart to one side? Sucks, right?
Imagine pushing that cart down the road as you leave town with everything you could find while scrounging through dumpsters. You hide the contents under a tarp–a tarp you’ll have to sleep under if it rains–and trudge out toward the nearest set of woods where you might be able to set up camp.
There are others like you–others the town is screaming about in the newspaper not to see anymore. But being with the “others” is not something you can do anymore because you’re a woman and you’re realizing you’ll never be safe until you’re alone.
And then that front wheel breaks.
What Change Time Yields
I first sat on the curb with Lars a few years ago. He wouldn’t look at me, or talk to me, or accept anything from me. The most I got out of him was, “No thanks.”
I quickly learned to not hand him money or food, but to simply leave it on the sidewalk for him to pick up later after I had left. He seemed to accept things this way, but he’d never touch them until after he was sure I had left.
My daughter asked me about him. “Why is he on the side of the road? What’s his story?”
I answered that I never asked. I knew his name. And I had asked his favorite color once. And if he’d ever ridden a motorcycle. But Lars never wanted to talk. His answers were always as few words as possible. Which was fine with me. If he didn’t want to talk, it meant I didn’t have to carry the conversation. We could just sit and be quiet.
So we did. On and off. For three years now? He has moved from one street, to under an awning by a carpet place, to leaning against the auto insurance building, to ending up under the overhang of the liquor store across from Staples. There have been a few times I haven’t seen him for a very long time in the winter and have wondered if he died.
Last October 5th, I bought him a birthday card. I was on my way to work and suddenly remembered it was his birthday so I pulled into the closest grocery store, hunted for a card that wouldn’t make him feel awkward (since so many cards are either overly-cheery or the punch line somehow revolves around a life in a materialistic culture), squeezed a ten dollar bill in, and wrote a quick note:
“Lars, Happy Birthday! Thanks for being my friend. Dave”
I delivered the card before work. Lars was still asleep, so I left it on the sidewalk next to him, along with the normal 3 granola bars.
I meant to play my trumpet last fall as well, under the bridge in December. A couple Christmas carols, maybe Frosty the Snowman. Never happened. Holding metal to your mouth in the winter just isn’t fun. I had once asked Lars if I could play for him–had my trumpet with me–but he said he’d rather I didn’t play.
On Christmas Day I got up before the rest of my family and went to Tim Hortons. I had already bought Lars and I small hot chocolates once before, so knowing he liked them I got us a couple of extra-large ones. Lars was, of course, still asleep.
Rather than wake him up, I put the paper cup down within his line of sight and stood under the overhang. The morning rain was misting down and there might have been a ‘star in the sky’ looking down where he lay, I don’t recall. What I will remember, though, is singing Christmas carols and worshipping Jesus and sensing His presence.
It’s been like that ever since. I sit down with Lars, and even though there are literally a half dozen things I could get up and go do because it’s Saturday morning and we have a family of six, I feel Jesus’ presence. If I take the time to keep myself still. If I don’t get restless about the rest of ‘my’ day.
On the Tuesday evening before Good Friday, I went and bought Lars and I both a hamburger from the White Spot in the nearby gas station. Lars wouldn’t eat with me at the time, but I tried to consider it like Communion. I tried to invite Jesus into the meal.
A half year later… change has come.
Instead of taking the granola bars when I leave (three years ago), or, like last year, saying ‘thanks’ and then quickly stuffing them up his left coat sleeve, now… now Lars laughs at the sight of them, like a little kid getting a piece of candy, says, ‘Thank you very much,’ tucks two away in his pants pocket and immediately opens up the third and begins to eat it while I’m still sitting there with him.
And today, when I tuck a ten dollar bill between the bars and say, “Hey man, it’s October 5th. Happy Birthday!” he begins to cry.
And so I sit there with him. And the cars roll bye. And he sniffs his tears and eats his granola bar, braking it into bite-sized chunks, chewing it one piece at a time.
French Fry Failure
A couple weeks after Lars’ birthday, I decide that if I don’t get called into work I’m going to go to Five Guys and order two large fries for lunch. The girl shovelling fries into the paper bag asks me if I want my order double-bagged, “because with this many fries one bag won’t stop the grease. These are to go, right? I mean…” and she catches herself before making an embarrassing judgment remark.
“No,” I pat my heart, “I’m not going to eat two orders of fries all by myself.” Even though I would gladly accept that challenge.
I drive to Lars’ sidewalk, inhaling the goodness of french-fry odor filling my car.
Rather than take my normal spot on his right, I walk past him so he’s facing me and then lower myself down onto the cold concrete. Lars allows one quick glance at the large paper bag before ducking his head back down between his shoulders. And with that, I know I blew it.
I try anyway, “Hey, man. I got us some fries.”
Shoot. “You sure?” I open the bag. Not only are the normal Five Guys soft-drink cups stuffed to overflowing, the bag is five inches deep in extra fries. “We got ketchup. The girl gave us mayo too.”
“No thanks,” he answers distantly.
I’ve wounded him. Not respected him. Now what?
Eat the fries, man.
Maybe the heat from the open bag will change his mind. Warm food?
I pull out a container of ketchup and start eating fries from one of the cups. The fries are so good. The chill of the air around us is greater than any gust of wind we might get from the passing cars. My hands are turning that cold, pale, red-at-the-fingertips color. My back shivers involuntarily as I lean against the windowpane glass of the liquor store. The warmth of the fries headed to my mouth, in my mouth, swallowing, is so, so good.
Why won’t he share a meal? Did he have a family? Are those the last people he ate with? He’s eaten with me around before. Dude, Lars, you want these fries while they’re hot…
Eventually, I slow down, surrendered to the thought, There’s no keeping these fries hot. I can leave him some, but they’ll be lukewarm.
…Nobody wants lukewarm.
I can’t bail and treat this like a hand-out. That’d be worse. I have to finish my half of the bag. If he eats the other half when I leave, great. If not, fine.
And so the steam rises, the fries go down, and Lars keeps his hands tucked into the tops of his winter boots.
This may be the last time I write about Lars and me. Not because I’m going to stop going to hang out with him, but because my journal has been about my learning how to relate to the guy. Now that I consider him a friend, it seems weird to keep writing about it. I mean, who writes about sharing fries with some buddies? It’s kinda… regular.
As I did the following sketches, I thought about the two of us. Lars takes the plastic lid off his coffee when he’s finished drinking, folds the lid, and tucks it inside of the cup. Why? Never asked. Didn’t have to. I do the same. But with hot chocolate instead of coffee.
Lars smokes. I don’t. But if I did, and I was in his position, I’d do the same. I’d have a little tin that I’d keep nearly smoked cigarettes in. I don’t know where Lars keeps his little tin, but I’d tuck mine in my inside coat pocket.
I don’t talk a lot, socially speaking. Neither did Lars. So we’d just sit there.
Cars and trucks passed. Bikes rolled by. The breeze might move the leaves of the scraggly bushes or thin branches of the young trees trying to grow up in the little patch of square dirt hemmed in by the sidewalk concrete, but most of the time there was no breeze. No true breeze. Just wind moved by humans racing past us.
The sidewalk itself was never that welcoming either. Never warm from the sun, always cool to the touch, as though dampness had decreed Lars would be chilled for the rest of his days.
He always wore winter boots, the laced-up kind, with his pants tucked into the tops and a woven blanket around his waist. If it was unusually hot out, I might find him in just a T-shirt, but most often he wore his winter coat. He’d use the pockets to hide the granola bars I’d bring. I’d place them on the ground, and he’d wait until I looked away, then he’d pocket them in his coat along with his mini wads of cash and his tin where he collected mostly-smoked cigarettes.
When I first met him, his hair was a gnarled mess of dreadlocks tucked into a big net of a winter hat. As his hair grew even longer, the hat seemed to hang on to this clump of hair for dear life as it slid further and further off his head and came to rest on his shoulder. The result was that in the winter, when he’d keep his hood up all the time, this lump of hair stuffed in a toque resting on his shoulder gave him a hunchbacked look. His posture was already terrible from all that time sitting on the pavement, from sleeping propped up against the liquor store wall, huddled in a ball in an effort to stay dry from the sleet and the rain.
The weather conditions weren’t what bent him over. The outer man only reflected the condition of the inner man. Lars was broken under a terrible weight. A weight he never vocalized, and I never asked about. In the end, I only ever learned what he became comfortable telling me. And that wasn’t much. Yet we seemed to be friends.
I want to say I spent four years, on and off, sitting with Lars. It may have been more, maybe less. He never once let me talk about Jesus. With that topic, he’d suddenly become vocal. “No thanks. Please don’t.” I think I only ever tried twice. And the last time, it was only because I was sitting with him on a Sunday morning.
“Hey, man,” I said after chilling on the cold November pavement for twenty minutes. “It’s Sunday today.”
“Is it?” He was still sipping the extra-large hot chocolate I’d brought him. Tiny sips. Fingers wrapped up around the rim. Beard gnarly as ever. Upper lip of his mouth completely hidden in the shag.
I pulled out my mini pocket Bible. “Thought, seeing that it’s Sunday, I might read a psalm. Would that be all right with you?”
Was he ever angry. “I’d rather you didn’t, but I can’t stop you! You just show up when you want, sit here, won’t go away! I never asked for any of this!”
“Okay, man,” I started to get up. “I hear you. I apologize. You want space, I’ll give you your space.” Before I left, I told him, “This was only ever about hanging out, man. Just living life. The Bible’s a part of my life. I was just sharing part of my life with a friend, that’s all.”
And those were the last words we ever said.
Not that I didn’t come back. I did. But I made sure it was at times when he’d be sleeping and I could just leave some granola bars on the pavement by his feet.
His body was quitting on him. Had been for months. One time, when he’d been away from his spot, I put our recycling bin and garbage can in the trunk of the van, filled them with soapy water, and took a big broom for sweeping up a shop and cleaned the filth off his area of the sidewalk. I knew that if the shop owners ever walked over to this side of the building, they’d chase Lars away, and he’d no longer have an awning to shelter under.
And then one day I drove by and Lars wasn’t there. He was gone. And I knew that was it.
People said an ambulance had come to get him. Firemen had been involved somehow. Someone had actually built him a shelter, but he didn’t get to use it for long.
The story circulated that he was in one of the medical wings of the local hospital. I tried with my old volunteer status to find out if that was true, if I could go see him. But, of course, patient confidentiality won out. No one could tell me if he was even there.
And now I drive by, and I miss him.
I miss his whether-worn hands with their thickened fingernails.
I miss his half-shut eyes and his sun-browned face.
I miss his short coughing fit after getting a cigarette lit.
I miss the smell of smoke and sweat.
I miss him, and I know he’s gone.
Some people may think he’s up in heaven, like the man from Jesus’ story with the rich man and the poor man. Some may think he’s not. After all, he rejected the Bible and he rejected hearing about Jesus.
Thankfully, it’s God’s job to be the Judge of the Earth. Whether or not this man’s name ever made it into the book of life, God knows.
Years ago, when I started writing about him, I chose not to use his real name. I needed a fake one. To me, his situation seemed to be a challenge to us “rich people,” asking, “What will you do?” He was, after all, “sitting at our gates” on the corner of Gaetz Street. Everyone could see him there, longing to have something to eat. So I took the name from Jesus’ story, Lazarus, and whittled it down to Lars.
Miss you, Lars.