Every day the shelters close for a few hours during sections of the day to do necessary cleaning, maintenance, and many other things that just can’t be accomplished during a time when hundreds of people are constantly milling about. During those times folks take to the streets, there are places set up to go so that they aren’t turned out in the cold, for the most part, but at the same right, some of the places that you would think would be ok to go, well, they are made to feel unwelcome or just downright told they can’t be there.
On one of these excursions I walked along with my brother Jim, now Jim is a guy who is what most would consider a vagrant, bum, useless, or any other of the many stereotypes that go along with the way he looks. His long beard, which shelters his cheeks neck and chin from the howling –25 winds that he is exposed to on a daily basis. The oversized baggy coat and snow pants, also used to do the same and also the oversized helps to pile necessary layers on the frigid nights where the temperatures and wind chills combined will cause frostbite in a matter of seconds.
Jim is a brilliant man, he starts out his day filling out various crossword puzzles, most of them to completion. One of them that I have seen him fill out, The New York Times Crossword, not partially, but completely, and at a rate of speed that there can be no other conclusion other than the man is a shear genius. Yet, here he is, wandering the streets, he has a tale, but this isn’t the time to tell it.
We were walking towards one of these places a middle area, and just chatting, about nothing and everything. As we approached an intersection I noticed an area of the road that had worn away, in turn a large section of road had come out, underneath that section of road, cobblestones. It was like he read my mind, he looked at me with is unflinching steel blue eyes that seemed to carve a path out from underneath his layers of hats right into my heart, and simply said, ‘funny, how no matter how much the city grows up around it, there’s still that foundation, they look at it as a flaw, but it is just a part of the city that has been forgotten and buried.’ We walked in silence for the next few minutes, somehow I have this feeling that Jim knew exactly what he had just said to me, how it had struck my heart and just wanted me to think on that. Jim is always one of the guys who has those insights for me.
All, I could think of was, they have been doing this for over 100 years, and now instead of structures, it was people. People, living, breathing, joking, laughing, smiling, crying people, that were being forgotten and buried beneath a city. A city that was built by so many of these peoples ancestors, Jim will tell you he was born and raised here, his dad worked on the river, built most of the steel structure bridges that you can still see along the riverfront, and that some of his favorite childhood memories were of when he’d go fishing on that riverfront back when, ‘the water was pretty clean’. He had gotten a job as an engineer for a steel company, and had done decently for himself, and through a chain of bad events, which included the deaths of his wife and one of his children in a car accident, he was homeless. He still gets some benefits, but not enough tto get by on, so he does what he has to do to get by, mostly camping, and relying on the kindness of strangers.
All I could think of was that his family had build this city, their blood sweat, and tears, supplied out streets, lights, and buildings with it’s life blood, and what does he get out of it? After all of this, the ability to get kicked out of the skyway system when he tries to get warm. A public place, that has been paid for by we the people, and he gets run out of there, because the city wants to try and hide the parts it no longer deems worthy. That’s a great thanks. I asked him once about that, he just said, ‘I’m too old to argue anymore.’ Me, Lets just say I was angry about it.
One more quick note, Jim is not a drinker, most would instantly assume that ‘looking like that he has to be an alcoholic’ , or ‘that he smells like booze’. I’m sure that some will make that assumption. The alcohol smell that permeates his coat, is actually the smell of sterno, the little things that folks use to keep buffet stuff warm. Yeah, that’s the only external warmth that this man feels some nights, as he huddles around that small burning aluminum can to survive. Why? His answer is simple, ‘I can survive out here, there’s folks who can’t, I’d rather know that my bed was given to one of those on days like this then have to roll around and wonder if while I’m warn some kid is gonna freeze.’
True greatness is achieved when someone is suffering and hurting and you make the decision, the willfull decision, to take their place. Other people in the past have done things like that, the one at the top of my mind, this guy from the desert, He did that before, suffered for his fellow man when he didn’t have to, just because he felt the compassion and love that it takes to sacrifice for someone else… His name was Jesus… maybe you’ve heard of Him. So with that, you are in very good company Jim.
I love each and every one of you and God does too.