I used to commute to San Francisco where I started work at 7am. Most mornings I’d have to step, almost trip, over the homeless, sleeping people that couldn’t, for various reasons, get into a shelter. They’re under blankets, under cardboard boxes, under benches, under doorways and almost always underfoot. After work I have to pass these same people who are now awake and asking for money or other items. Most are were nice. But some would curse and yell at anyone in their area. I offer my change, small bills, my packed lunch, or pieces of fruit. At times I’ve purchased coffee from a street truck for those awake at 6:45am, and I feel guilty for not doing more. My guilt will not allow me to pass by without some sort of help or gesture.
Then I met John. I’d watched him for a few weeks when I first started to work in the city, I admired his style. There was something about him, something special, unique in fact. John was homeless, had nothing, nowhere to go, but he did have a job. John’s job was to stand at the same spot, on the same corner, every day, rain or shine. He did not lean, sit, or recline. He stood upright near the building, a smile on his face and a good morning nod to those who passed by, or thanks to anyone who might drop him a coin.
John held a 12 ounce red plastic cup close to his chest. It was a cracked, broken, dirty cup that had seen better days. But it too had a job to do. This cup must safely hold anything given to John. His hair always combed, but he was unshaven, his dress was ragged but clean, sometimes he wore shoes, sometimes he didn’t. Socks were a luxury. He either wore a hat or not, and sometimes he wore a yellow rain jacket that made him look like a school crossing guard. John was never there at his spot in the mornings.
He spoke soft, sweet, pleasant, and always respectfull. He addressed men as Sir and women as Darl’n.
“Good Day to you Sir.”
“Smile, God loves you.”
“Have a beautiful day.”
And my personal favorite “Thank you, Darl’n”.
After a while I made sure to have something to give John when I left work. If time permitted I’d stop and chat a bit, and I apologized if I had nothing to give him. He was happy, thankful, grateful, and never disappointed.
“Maybe next time, Darl’n.” He’d say if I were empty handed.
The first time I gave him a few lint covered quarters from deep in my pocket, he asked my name. We introduced ourselves to each other and a friendship was born. During the conversation I could almost feel the sadness and pain behind his eyes when he explained he was a father. He said he had adult children he never sees, but he was proud of them, and he knew they were all good kids.
Always in a hurry to get to my train on time, I would often run by him without a word, dropping off anything I had for him, but smiled as I moved fast. A missed train meant 35 minutes were added to my commute.
“Take care, John.” I’d call out to him, dropping coins or food and moving fast.
On this one particular day I left work in a very bad, dark mood. It had been a horrible day, a horrible week even. Everyone was stressed, the job was getting more difficult, the pressure was mounting and I wished everyday was a Saturday so I could bury my head under a mountain of pillows. I hated everything and everyone. I hated my job, my commute, my boss, my fellow employees, my kids, cooking dinner, everything was getting too much for me to bear. How I got to this point in my life and why was I so cranky all the time I couldn’t answer, but every day seemed to be worse than the previous one. And this hate was building up inside me.
I quickly left the building and joined the ugly mob on the sidewalk who were also racing to the train entrance. And totally forgot I even knew someone named John. Not thinking, head down, I passed by him quickly, without even noticing him, without anything for him, not even a smile. When I was nearly out of ear shot I heard him say in that sweet, gentle voice of his, “Don’t worry Darl’n. This too shall pass.”
It felt like God himself had spoken to me, reminding me things could be worse, and that hit me hard. I could be that woman in the wheel chair on the next corner who had no legs and hated everyone who walked past her because they could. I might be under a cardboard box, freezing, hopeless, helpless. I could have no home, no children, no wonderful husband, and no job to bitch about. I could have nothing at all. I needed to stop and be grateful for my many gifts.
I turned and went back to John and apologized. Sorry for having nothing to share, sorry for running by, sorry for feeling sorry for myself and sorry for the ugliness on my face. He hugged me and said he understood very well. His bad odor didn’t bother me as I hugged him back. Then he told me to get going or I’d miss my train, he’d see me tomorrow.
The next morning I packed a nice care package for John and brought it to him on my lunch hour. We sat in an empty doorway and talked about our daily lives. I found him comforting, intelligent, and even funny. I could tell that in better days, he must have been handsome.
One day John was gone and I was worried that something bad had happened. One of my co-workers said John was a drug addict and went off the wagon from time to time but always returned to his “job” once he was clean again.
Two weeks passed and John did return to his usual spot looking a little more sad and worn looking. Our friendship continued with us checking on each other’s day and other pleasantries. His smile sent me home feeling grateful, comforted. After a few weeks John disappeared again, and again I worried about him.
Time passed and I didn’t see John until a year later when he was crossing a very busy street at commute time. He was going against the light on a one way street and the fast moving cars were dodging him. Everyone was honking and cursing him, while people on the corners watched in horror. He didn’t know where he was, or that he was in any danger.
I called to him to stop. I put my arms up and stopped the traffic just as we got the green light to cross. I ran to him and helped him to his corner as he leaned on me.
“John, what are you doing, are you ok?” I asked. He blinked a few times as he tried to focus on my face. After a few seconds he looked into my eyes.
“Hey you!” he yelled back his breath almost knocking me down. “How are you? Hey all you people! Looky here at this here woman. She’s the nicest person in the world. You people don’t even know the angel that walks with you. This woman is a wonderful angel!” He went on and on as people looked in disgust pushing past us to cross the street.
John was hanging all over me, filthy and horrible smelling. His black bushy hair was matted with something brown that I didn’t want to know about. He wore socks without shoes, and his shirt and pants were ripped. I tried to pull him off me, but didn’t want to offend my friend. So I stepped back and propped him against the building.
“Are you ok, John?” I’d never seen anyone like this before, well, not this close up anyway. He just looked into space, eyes still unable to focus.
“Here John, please take this.” I gave him a $5.00 bill hoping he’d make it to McDonald’s on the next block. “I want you to promise me you will get something to eat.”
“No worries, not now, Darl’n, but I’ll take care of that. You just be on your way.”
When I crossed the street he was calling out to the crowds again, singing my praises. He had fallen on his butt and was leaning against the building. I wanted to cry.
I never saw my friend John again and I think of my angel often. And I’ll never forget his prophetic words, words that helped me, words that woke me up on that dark and crazy day. Today I repeat them often as a prayer, whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed.
“This too shall pass.”
And I guess for John it did.