The first time I saw him he walked into the bookstore that I managed. He wore a white sign, which hung on his neck with string. The letters were crude and written with a black market. It said, “Today is my birthday. Can you please help, and give me $20.00?”
As a rule, you can’t come in my store, hustling people, but I turned away and let him. I saw a few customers put a few bucks in his hand. One woman gave him a twenty. He’s compelling. He’s a man with a hole in his face.
When I say hole, I don’t mean a pencil size indentation. I mean a big, gaping crater-like hole. You can see right inside his head: nasal cavities, all kind of stuff folks aren’t really meant to see, unless they are surgeons. He is painful to look upon.
I’d see him around Ann Arbor, with his birthday sign, and hustle. I wished him well. Who’d hire him? I felt badly for him, and slipped him a little cash, myself.
When I worked at the hospital, one night, well after midnight, when we all got chatty to stay awake, one of the nurses told me that he’d shot himself. He wanted to end it all, but he angled the gun the wrong way, and merely succeeded in blowing off his nose and part of his mouth and cheeks. It is an astoundingly sad story.
I saw him today. I wondered if I should whip out a copy of The Four Spiritual Laws, smile a beatific smile, and tell him, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Somehow, I doubted if John needed a tract. I didn’t have one, anyway. So I offered a little conversation.
I said, “How are you.”
“Fine,” he said. He paused for a moment and looked away with his wide, pale blue eyes. Then he turned to me, and said, “How are you?”
“I’m good,” I said. And it wasn’t a lie today.
I asked him what his name is, then told him mine. I found five bucks in my pocket today--one of those happy surprises you find when you wear a jacket you haven’t worn since the weather turned. I wanted to buy a cheap paperback, but instead, I reached into my purse. I asked John if it were his birthday today. He must have known I knew his game, and told me no, but it’s next week. I slipped him the bill, and said “Happy Birthday, John.” His mouth moved in what I imagine for him is a smile, and he stuffed the five dollars, all I could afford, into his pocket.
I asked if he had a job. He said, “It’s hard.” I asked if he were okay, and he nodded yes. I told him if I ever start a business, I’d look for him, and he said thank you, and his eyes lit up. I meant it, too.
There is the gospel in a tract, and the gospel in a bill discreetly slipped into a needy hand. I hoped I gave him the right good news. I hope that a little love and respect would open his heart to friendship, and that friendship, would open his heart to Christ. I pray to see him, again, with another chance to love, and be the hands, and heart, and pocketbook of Jesus.
I felt the expected Pentecostal guilt at not giving him chapter and verse, but somehow, I thought I did what Jesus would want me to do. Love goes a long way, and don’t we all have holes—maybe not in our faces, but in our souls. I hoped I’d get the chance to witness to him, but today, I think I was called to be a friend.
When he got on his bus, I said, “Goodbye, John. See you around.”
“Goodbye, Claudia,” he said.
I was glad that he remembered my name. Like someone I love. Like a friend.
Rethinking what it means to be holy (holey),