He was a 30ish, rail-thin, hopelessly drunken black man. In less politically correct parlance, he was what people once called a bum. The economy when his story took place, mostly in late 1982, was far worse than today’s: On its way down from 13.5% inflation and 21% interest rates, it featured inflation still running at 6% and unemployment at a whopping 10.8 %. There were a lot more of “his kind” on the streets in those days than now — “his kind” meaning destitute, apparently living on the streets, begging. Even so, he stood out.
I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., working at an internship for Louisiana’s U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, when our man — (that’s how I’ll identify him from now on, “Our Man,” or OM for short) — first entered my consciousness. The route back from Capitol Hill to campus involved a transfer from Metro train to a bus at a stop at D.C.’s Dupont Circle. On one of those gray, dreary, late-November days that give ample evidence that winter is on its way, OM, unsteady on his feet, approached several of us waiting at the bus stop and asked for some change “for a cup of coffee.” Or, rather than asked, he loudly announced, while slurring his speech, that he needed the money. Nobody else answered — but, feeling proud of my own generosity, I reached way down deep into my pocket and felt around, first fingering what felt like a couple of pennies, then settling on what turned out to be a big, whopping quarter to give him. He snatched it without thanks and stumbled off down the street.
For some reason, the bus took seemingly forever to get there, because our same group of commuters still was standing at the same stop about 15 or 20 minutes later when OM stumbled back down the street, came right back to us and, without seeming to realize that we were the same people he already had approached — nor that I was the same guy who had just given him a quarter 15 minutes earlier (how dare he not remember!) — again announced that he needed money for a cup of coffee.
Well, harrumph. That sure as hell “learned me,” as the saying goes, about the folly of wasting my money.
Anyway, several weeks went past, and almost every time I waited at that bus stop, OM was loitering nearby, pestering people for money, stumbling around, reeking of alcohol, being a nuisance. One day, perhaps in January (it was quite cold), he lay shivering on the bus-stop bench, under the tiny wind shelter, curled into a ball, holding what looked even through its plastic wrapper to be a soggy, unappetizing loaf of bread. For the five or so minutes until the bus came, I listened as OM sometimes mumbled, sometimes whispered, sometimes said in a conversational tone, and a few times suddenly shouted at deafening decibels, the same phrase, over and over like a mantra: “Bread, but no meat. Bread, but no f***ing meat. God***n bread but no f***ing meat!!!!”
I looked around for clues about what to do, but as all the older commuters just ignored OM, so did I, until the bus came to take me back to Georgetown’s magnificent old buildings, erudite professors, and friends aplenty.
Another occasion, not too long thereafter, OM was even worse. Oh, he wasn’t as pitiful this time, but instead was menacing. A reasonably young woman stood among our crowd of commuters, and OM stumbled up to her. This time, he didn’t ask for money. “Hey, lady,” he said. “D’ya wanta man? You look like you want a man. I can give it to you, lady, I can give it to you good.”
The woman just looked away. I looked at the other male commuters. We made eye contact with each other, and stepped closer to OM, who still was standing a few feet from the woman rather than crowding into her. Somehow, it seemed that about four of us silently made an unspoken agreement: If OM touched the woman, we’d all jump him together. (Gee, how brave of us.)
OM, oblivious to us, swayed a little closer to the woman — not so much a step towards her as just a drunken, off-balance lean — and repeated something like: “C’mon baby, lemme give it to you.”
The four of us all stepped closer still to OM, nobody saying anything yet, nobody wanting to actually make contact, but all of us realizing this needed to be stopped. Slowly, OM noticed that we were crowding into him, and his heretofore slightly unfocused eyes suddenly focused on the biggest of the four of us (certainly not at my 5’8″ frame). The bigger guy stared daggers at OM, and OM muttered something under his breath and turned away, crossing the street and lurching all the way down the next block until out of sight. The woman, meanwhile, just stood there biting her lip, while the four or five of us re-spaced ourselves to normal distances, all of us surely feeling somewhat smug about how well we thought we had defused the situation.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember seeing OM at that stop for the rest of that school year, and he more or less fell from my mind as freshman year and my internship both ended and I went home for the summer. I didn’t renew the internship the next year, so I had no reason to return to the Dupont Circle bus stop.
No reason, that is, until another gray and chilly day, again I think in late November (maybe early December), when I had a free afternoon and decided to go back to Livingston’s office, just for a visit with the office staff that had been so nice to me the year before and also to talk home-state politics.
This was in late 1983, and the Reagan economic miracle by now was revving up. People everywhere seemed to me (or so I seem to remember it) less glum, less grim. And as I stood at the Dupont bus stop after my Capitol visit, wishing I were wearing a heavier jacket to ward off the cold, I was surprised to see OM walking down the block — the same block down which he had exited the last time that I had seen him, 10 months before — this time coming toward us rather than away. But on this occasion OM wasn’t staggering quite the same way. And this time, although his jeans and shoes and shirt still were ragged, he wore on top of them a spiffy, clean, almost-new-looking tan plaid sport jacket. Also different this time was that he wasn’t holding on for dear life to a pathetic, soggy-looking loaf of cold bread; instead, amazingly enough, he had in his hand what looked like a hot roast beef sandwich, steam visibly rising from it in the cold air. OM held the sandwich aloft as if it were a prize, except for when intermittently he lowered it to his mouth to wolf down a hearty bite.
I noticed as OM walked right past the bus stop that he still smelled just a little like alcohol, but otherwise he clearly had had at least a temporary change of fortune. He didn’t even pause to ask commuters for any money. About 15 yards beyond us, though, his gait slowed. Another “street person,” this one white and much older, maybe 60, sort of short and stocky, stood there forlornly looking down at his own feet, not saying a word, just standing there with his arms crossed the way people do when trying to keep warm.
OM stopped. The old white “bum” didn’t even look at him, didn’t say anything to him, may not have even noticed him. But OM noticed Old White, and OM got an idea.
“Hey, you,” OM said to Old White, tapping him on the shoulder. Old White looked up, and leaned a bit away as if unsure of what was coming next. He didn’t look as if he knew OM; they apparently were strangers. Anyway, OM then reached way down deep into his sport jacket pocket with his non-sandwich hand… and his hand emerged with a handful of greenback bills, perhaps seven or even eight of them, of indeterminate denominations that OM didn’t even bother to check.
“I want you to have these,” OM said to Old White, pressing the bills into an obviously surprised Old White’s hands. And, without waiting for Old White to say anything, OM turned on his heels, took another bite of his steaming sandwich, and walked away with a jaunty stride….
From Luke 21: “Truly I tell you: this poor [man] has put in more than all of them; for [he] out of [his] poverty put in all the living that [he] had.”
I watched OM stride away. Suddenly that quarter from deep in my pocket a year earlier seemed incredibly small….
* * *
No matter how fallen somebody is, he can still give, as can all of us. No matter how self-satisfied we are, we can learn from the examples of others. For we already have been given so much, and taught so much, from and through the example of the greatest Giver of them all.
An Episcopalian minister and writer named Martin Bell once wrote a hauntingly sad but beautiful little Christmas short story called “Barrington Bunny,” from a collection of Bell’s stories called “The Way of The Wolf: The Gospel in New Images.” The story tells of how on a cold Christmas Eve, Barrington found himself alone because he was the only bunny in his particular forest — but, moved by love, Barrington hopped around and left gifts at all the other animals’ houses: a stick for the beaver’s dam, and dead leaves and grass for the squirrels’ nest, and so on. And with each gift, he left a simple note that said: “This is a gift. A free gift. No strings attached. Signed, a member of your family.”
That’s the sort of gift handed by OM to Old White on that cold day in 1983, one with no strings attached. And I, the observer, could only stare in wonder, my old judgments upended, my former certainties somewhat scrambled.
On Friday, Christians celebrate a gift far more profound, but given just as freely as the wadded-up dollar bills OM gave to Old White. For that far more profound gift on that first Christmas Day, it was shepherds who stared in wonder.
As indeed all Christians still stare in wonder, for the gifts of the Lord are glorious to behold. The living Bread alone is enough, for it provides all the sustenance we need.
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