John was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Junkman’s Daughter the next morning with a cup of coffee, reading the newspaper. He was the first person I saw when I climbed out of the truck at 7am to start walking toward the church everyone had been telling me about. I sat next to John and he shared his coffee with me and thanked me again for reading with him last night, for the cup of coffee that we had given him on our way back from the gas station, and for hanging out with him until the early hours of the morning.
I remembered something that he whispered as I sat next to him, my arm through his, my head on his shoulder, his dreadlocks resting in my hair as his temple touched the top of my head. We had sat there for a moment like that, and I had felt the sadness begin to take hold again, threatening to unleash the tears that Joy had silenced. He had exhaled the words as though they were the very breath in his body. “I’m just so lonesome… so lonesome.”
My heart had broken for him, and I had understood a little better what Shane was telling me on the walk to the gas station. “Everyone around here talks about that guy like he’s just a drunk. I saw him earlier and he was acting like a raving lunatic. He didn’t look like he was in his right mind. And everyone says he’s hard to handle. But when you were talking to him he was clear, and coherent, and even sweet.”
No wonder he had asked me why I cared when I found him crying. Everyone needs friends.
Even when one of his ‘friends’ had come to sit down with us at the table last night, they started in on him right away, telling me that I should stay away from him and that he’s crazy. I glared at the man, telling him that John was my friend and that I loved him. John had patted my hand and smiled at me.
He stayed at the Junkman’s Daughter while we walked to church at Mercy Community. Everyone had been telling us about Pastor Chad for days, and it was easily one of the coolest church services I’ve ever attended. Definitely the coolest church service to be offered on a Monday morning for all the houseless people that live around Ponce De Leon in Little 5 Points, and made complete with coffee and cherry pie. When we walked back to the Junkman’s Daughter, John was still sitting out front with a little piece of cardboard asking for spare change. I knew he was trying to get a beer, and I was reminded of the verse in Proverbs 31 that says to “give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his misery no more…”
We sat down for a while, and I remembered something else that had made John sad last night. He had spent 2 dollars on a pair of headphones for his tape player, but the band was broken and they wouldn’t stay on his head. He had to hold them up to his ears. Shane climbed into the back of Jethro and found some old brake line that he wasn’t using. As he twisted it into the right shape and fit the headphones into place, John told me about his walk to go get a sandwich from an outreach place called 910.
“They make you check your bags when you go in, and they give you this ticket, you know. So I did. And then when I got in line to get a sandwich, this guy came up to me and said he smelled alcohol on my breath. He said ‘you’re not eatin here today,’ and told me to leave! Like, that’s real Christian of you.” He said. John’s friend Harold was sitting next to us at this point and interrupted the story. “Okay, but did you get all nasty with him John? Come on, tell the truth.” John rolled his eyes and rested his forehead on his hand. “Well yeah, I did after he told me I couldn’t get a sandwich. And so when I walked away, the guy was just standing there smiling, waiving at me, because he knew I had already checked my bag.”
It took a moment to sink in. Did he really just tell me that these guys not only refused him a meal, but are keeping his only possessions locked away for an entire day while he wanders around in poverty? It’s no coincidence that the rest of that verse in Proverbs tells us what to do about these things. “Open your mouth for the speechless, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
John asked me to read some more out of the book, so I opened it to Ezekial 34 in an effort to remind myself that God will sort it all out in the end. But a man walked by and stopped to listen to the chapter. He asked me why I had chosen that particular part of the book, and I told him what had happened to John. The man asked me to turn to 1 John 3:17 and the verse that says “if any man has material possessions, and he sees his brother in need and doesn’t help him, then the Love of God is not in him.”
It seems so cut and dry. So obvious. So truthful. Millions of people are carrying this book with them to buildings, or placing it up high on a shelf, and I’m sharing the concerns of James. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says!!!”
Over the next few days, as we lived there on streets of Little 5 Points, I felt the urge to protect John from the labels that his “friends” gave him. I told him 20 times a day that I loved him and that he was my friend. He never showed me the side of himself that everyone was always talking about. Once I was so offended by the string of negativity being directed at John by someone that has known him for 25 years that I called him an ass as nicely as I could, and told him that I wasn’t going to listen to him talk that way about my friend.
On the third day, I was sitting on a park bench in the square talking to a guy who had just walked up to us and offered to buy us lunch, and I told him that I didn’t understand why people needed to be so mean. The guy told me that he doesn’t take it personally when people call him a bum, because you can’t let stuff like that get to you. I told him that I think it’s different sometimes… Like I don’t care if a stranger who sees me sitting next to my friends while they’re panhandling calls me a bum; it’s ignorance. I can just tell myself that they think that because they don’t know me. But if someone that is close to me, someone that is my friend, or my husband, or a family member, or someone that I’ve known for a decade started tearing me down every day… I wouldn’t be able to convince myself otherwise. I might eventually start to believe it.
That afternoon, John told me that he kicked his dope habit a few years ago when a girl started coming around his sleeping spot and reading with him. They would spend all day reading and talking, and after a little while, he just stopped going to get his drugs. “I’m convinced that she was an angel, you know… but maybe that’s just weird.”
“Not at all,” I told him, saying a silent Thank You to the spirit that lived in that girl and brought her to John. I remembered that Jennifer told me the definition of the word ‘weird.’ I always thought it was a synonym for ‘strange,’ but we looked it up and found out that the word ‘weird’ means Fate; Destiny. So maybe it’s a little weird after all.
“You can kick this too, if you want.” I nodded at the beer in his hand and he gave me a sad smile. Something in my heart stirred and I began to wonder if I’d ever be able to walk away… Suddenly I couldn’t imagine a life where we weren’t sitting here on the sidewalk with John. I didn’t want to miss this, leaning on his shoulder and listening to The Melvins playing through my cell phone speaker. Sharing a set of head phones linked together with brake line and reading Stomp & Stammer, sweeping the parking lots at 3 am and reading under the porch light of the feminist bookstore.
But that’s the same day that John got arrested for drinking a beer in public. He was sitting right in front of me when he did it, and I honestly didn’t think anything of it… I hadn’t realized that it’s illegal to drink a beer outside in Little 5 Points. When the cop came over and put him in handcuffs, I had a flashback to another man named John, another police officer, another sidewalk arrest… my heart was weak and I didn’t move for a moment. The police officer was nice enough to let John sit outside of the precinct, right across the sidewalk from where we had been sitting on the park bench talking just a few moments before. I asked the police officer if I could sit there with him, and I just held his hand as we watched the world walk past us.
At first I was speechless. I don’t like jail. I don’t like our system. And John was breaking. He doesn’t like it either. But the longer I sat in silence, the heavier the situation would become. I’m grateful for the little black kitten that came creeping up the side of the building, stopping a few feet away to meow at us before darting inside the precinct. Thank you for breaking the silence.
We read a little, laughed a little, and I told him stories about traveling in Oregon and Florida, and different things that I’ve woken up to see on the other side of my windshield. I’m hoping to create pretty places in his mind, so that he can go there when the world seems dark. He can remember, “Life is Beautiful.” He was smiling until the police officer came out to explain the ticket. If he gets the right judge, he may only be in there for a few weeks. Otherwise they could give him 6 months simply based on the number of times he’s been in and out of jail. John’s eyelids were lowered and he nodded with a heavy heart.
The police man smiled in my direction. “You’re seeing the better side of John. He’s not always like this. John can be a raving drunk,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t let him fool you.”
I listened to him ramble on about all the stupid things that John has done and his anger problems while my feelings were being deeply hurt. Why do we say things like that to each other? Why does this man talk as though John isn’t sitting right next to me, holding my hand? I felt like someone struck a match and I turned my head and buried it into John’s shoulder so that I could whisper to him. I think it’s divine that at that very moment, a woman came up to ask the police officer for directions and he turned away from us. The flame rose in my throat and came out of my mouth with a passion and desperation…
“Don’t you listen to what everybody out here says about you. Don’t you listen to them. They can’t see in here,” I said as I poked my finger in the center of his chest. “I don’t care what your friends say, they don’t know you like God knows you. He lives in you, and you are beautiful.”