November 10, 2009
The following piece is about one of those experiences in life that you just can’t get out of your mind. I decided to break the telling into smaller segments because no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to make it any shorter. And while I love the sound of my own voice as much as the next person – I don’t think I should expect anyone to spend their valuable attention span molecules on my blog. Blogs should be short and pithy, a microcosm of the larger universe if you will, piquing our interest while leaving plenty of room in our heads for more lengthy and, some might say, important literary endeavors – like War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings.
(If you have another perspective on this assessment, please let me know.)
Driving to my mom’s house last week, I passed a man standing on the side of the street holding an enormous, handmade cross. He was bedraggled looking, with long gray hair pulled into a half-hearted ponytail, a straggling beard creeping toward his chest and ancient, soiled clothes of an indeterminate color. The weather was warm, and his sleeves were pushed up past his elbows. I saw him from about a half mile away, giving me plenty of time to form ideas and opinions about who he was and why he might be standing there. Slowing down to turn, however, I caught a glimpse of his eyes, and was startled to realize that far from engaging passersby as do most of the men who occupy this corner, he was staring off into the distance, deliberately avoiding contact. Clearly my first impression had been wrong. This was no beggar. But what then was he doing standing beneath the blaze of a mid-afternoon sun holding a cross and looking in desperate need of a handout? Surely he wanted attention – why else stand so openly exposed at the edge of a busy street? I had noticed a dirty backpack at his feet, but it seemed deflated, empty. Either he had no belongings or had stored them elsewhere for the day. Homeless? Maybe. Poor? Obviously. What about the cross? Hewn of two long tree limbs and tied together with an old, red rag, it stood about eight feet tall. Perhaps he was an evangelist, stumping not for any particular religion, but for God.
I picked up my mom and the two of us went on our way, running errands and having lunch as we do every Wednesday. Heading back at the end of the afternoon, I decided to bring the man some food. I had a sandwich, but nothing else, so on my way I stopped at a gas station and bought a bag of chips and a soda. The station also had Snowballs, my mom’s favorite treat in the world, and on impulse I bought those as well. As I climbed back into the car, Mom handed me a carefully folded ten dollar bill. I had told her I didn’t think the man wanted money, but she insisted. Then she handed me the cupcakes, saying, “Here. He needs these way more than I do.” Touched by the gesture, but still a bit put out that she had so readily given up my gift, I tossed them in the bag.
When we arrived back at the corner, it was rush hour. I pulled over, trying to get out of traffic as quickly as possible and thus avoid irritating any potentially volatile commuters, and jumped from the car. In my haste to get off the road, I had parked quite a distance from the man. Stumbling along the uneven mix of dirt, rocks and mud, I started feeling stupid. Despite my best efforts, I was causing a snag in traffic – people were slowing down, looking. Some were honking, and others shouted for me to get the hell out of the way. Lurching and sweating and wondering if I had lost my mind, I considered turning around and climbing back into the safe anonymity of my car. But I was on a mission and backing away from that didn’t seem like much of an option.