Don’t be afraid to greet me
The contemplative book fan outside the metro station in D.C.
Often I pass by a homeless man in downtown Washington. During the cold winter months, the homeless usually spend the late evening sleeping on the grate outside the metro center station, where they can stay warm from the steam.
One particular homeless man always strikes me as unique. He is always reading a book. In the midst of all the bustle and noise, nothing seems to distract him from his contemplation. I have often marveled at his remarkable tenacity, given that the slightest things seem to distract me! This man has all his worldly goods collected in a shopping cart beside him.
One evening I went out for a pizza after having finished work, and on my return home, I spotted this man in the distance. He rarely begs, but this evening he had a small paper cup in his hand. I reached into my pocket to get a few dollars, and hesitatingly began to speak to him.
We began a conversation that continued for half an hour. I told him my name is John and he introduced himself with his full name: Richard N. I remarked how I passed him many times on the street and always noted he was reading. I asked him what kinds of books he liked, since I am a great book lover too.
Richard told me he liked Tom Clancy, mysteries and other kinds of novels. I told him I had some of those types of novels at home, and asked if he had heard of James Lee Burke. He had not, but was interested.
I eventually asked Richard, “Do you sleep out here at night?” Richard replied, “Oh, I have a place a few blocks from here where I usually bed down.” I wondered, how many years had he lived in this way, and he told me that it had been over five years.
“Oh, part of it was my fault,” he said. “I was in prison … but thanks be to God, it was not for murder or anything like that. I did go off the rails, but I have now regained some order in my life.” I asked if many people stop and talk to him, and he replied, “Oh, not too many!”
He explained that on the street he had met many people who have fallen on hard times; even dentists and former senators. I replied, “I too could be in your situation,” and he looked at me and smiled.
“John, today I got some good news. I’ve been on a waiting list for housing for years, and now my name has come up. Because I’m not mentally ill, or in another condition, I’ve been low on the priority list. But today, I got word that my name has come up! I’ll go over on Monday and see what news they have for me. After this experience I’d like to help others. There are some courses where I could become a counselor and help the homeless, since I know what that’s like.”
I told him that I lecture students on the Greek tragedies that speak of how wisdom comes through suffering, and how this reminds me of what he was saying. I also told him that I had always marveled at how tidy and well ordered his shopping cart is. At this point he stood up and grasped my hands saying: “Brother John, this is my life. If I did not keep it well-ordered, I could not survive out here. It’s the secret to the inner order I have. If that order goes, I have nothing left to hang on to.”
He then turned to his neat cart and pulled out from under the blankets different books to show me what he had been reading. He trusted me enough to let me take them into my hands. He told me how he had a great dictionary once, but that it was stolen from him. He mentioned how some of his Thoreau books were taken too. We spoke about the Kramer Bookstore in Washington.
I assured him that the next time I’m over in Kramer, or Second Story bookstores, I’ll be looking for books he might like. I told him: “I have some good books at home, as well. I’ll drop by and give them to you.”
Richard remarked, “I’m also interested in non-fiction. So, if you have a good philosophy book, I’d be interested.” At this Richard again clasped my hand and said: “Brother John, we were meant to speak this evening. You stopped by and that is a sign of your care. I want to thank you.”
I answered: “If you see me pass by, don’t be afraid to greet me. I’ll have some books for you soon. It is I who should be thanking you, Richard.”
J. McN., Washington
If you are interested to read more articles like this: