I have this undeveloped hunch that several homeless people have a big secret. A secret that some of them don’t even know yet. That some of them are angels. And that I will be working for them in the next age. I walk by them, curious; I look into their eyes and try to make out a sense of knowing. Is it there? Do they know?
So it was no surprise to me the other day when this thing that I’m going to tell you about, happened.
I’ve been trying out a fledgling coffee shop in the developing, sputtering-toward-its-potential, historical district of my town. The first time I went there coincided with the time when, out of nowhere, extremely loud and profane exclamations belonging to an older male bellowed out from across the street and down a few doors. The surprised patrons walking nearby at that moment scurried into the closest open, public doors.
The worker at the coffee shop I scurried into came out from behind the counter, and peered outside the doorway and around the corner to see what all the excitement was about. After a few seconds the shouting stopped, and the coffee shop owner said, to no one in particular, “Historical Roseville… iiiiiiiiiiit’s exciting!” (He said it with the inflection of an announcer at a WWF event). He followed it up with a mumble, “The weird thing was that he was yelling at his own reflection in the window.”
I decided to go back a couple weeks later, because 1) I’m a bleeding-heart, small-business supporter (albeit contradicted by my love affair with Amazon Prime), especially IF, 2) The product is good. And in my opinion, this place has the best coffee in town. So, the second time I went, I sat outside on a bench fashioned by two-by-four lumber and cinder blocks. The small table for my bench was composed in the same way. Very endearing to anyone like myself who has ever tried to express their inner person with dorm room furniture.
I was alone at my table, which is the way I prefer it—alone—with my journal and laptop. There was a thoughtful handful of fresh flowers in the small vase on the table. A homeless man hobbled by, mumbling something about an AA meeting. Then he hobbled by three more times, hunched over, shabby, repeating his line about looking for the meeting. Then the man paused to rest on a window sill near me. He asked if it would bother me if he smoked.
“Yes.” I told him, “The smoking would bother me”.
But I had this feeling I ought to listen to him if he talked, and sure enough, after sitting together for a few moments of silence, another character trailed through, shaking his fist at enemy demons, and the man sitting next to me says, “There sure is a lot of evil in this world; but if there wasn’t any evil, how would we know what ‘good’ is?”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “That is profound!”
That wasn’t the reaction he was expecting. “Well, thank you”, he said softly. “I don’t… people don’t usually think…” He trailed off. He wasn’t looking for pity, so he didn’t need to say what he meant: “People don’t usually think I have anything to offer.”
“Did you go to college?” he asked.
“Yes”, I said.
“What did you learn?”
“I tried school”, said the man. “But it seemed more suited for teaching people how to make money. Doesn’t it seem that way to you? Nothin’ wrong with that, but I’m looking for real knowledge. Like, how to be a decent human being. Seems like that would solve some of the real problems we have. I mean, for a top food-producing country, we sure have a lot of hungry people. Maybe if we were more decent, and less focused on making money, we might actually do some real good. Sometimes I think most of the people who resort to drugs are the ones who just can’t believe the cruelty and greed of this world.”
He went on to tell a story of when he worked on a shrimp boat and ate until he was nearly sick of food, and how he realized then that the main thing we all need to learn is how to be fed.
Twenty minutes into it, he was still talking, and I would have left at any time (because in my midlife age, I am getting less polite; and with less time ahead of me, I feel less inclined to indulge other peoples’ need to talk), except that I was intrigued. I was doing myself a favor by sitting and listening. Meanwhile, several strollers-by glanced at me with “whaddyagonnado”-type faces, or eye rolls, and at one point the coffee shop worker came out to casually offer the seating in the back that they hadn’t quite finished painting yet, but it was available if I wanted it.
After a pause, the man I was talking with picked up where he left off, “It seems like we could learn a lot from the Creator, but people seem offended by that. For the life of me I can’t understand why that would be an offensive idea—that there is a Creator. I’m sort of dumbfounded by that.”
Then he turned to me and asked, “Do you have anything for me?”
Right or wrong, I felt a little disheartened for a second until he clarified, “I mean, knowledge—do you have any knowledge for me? I have everything else I need, but what one thing do you know that has helped you, that could maybe help me?”
The “Dueling Banjos” tune popped into my head.
Oh, the importance of being prepared for these moments. And, oh, the disappointment I feel toward myself when I feel so unprepared…
It was clear this man already knew the true “One Thing”. But as for a “one bit of knowledge-thing”, I’m not one of those people like the cowboy-sensei from City Slickers who has this “One Thing” of knowledge that I stay with or hand out. I tend to move from thought to thought, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. So I considered the current branch that I was dangling from at that very second.
“Well”, I started, as a pithy thought bubbled to the surface, “I think what I’m grappling with right now is the belief that I’m OK.”
“Huh?” asked the man.
“What I mean to say, is that I—we all—do all kinds of ridiculous things, believing that we are not OK.”
“Oh,” he said. “Huh.”
It was time for me to go, so I strapped on my purse and put on my sunglasses. I went over to shake his hand, and as we shook, he kindly said, “Thank you, my dear, you are an inspiration.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Robert”, he said. “But my given name is Roadrunner.”
And that was that.