The Gray Haired Man

We stopped at the Circle K on 24th Street and avenue B on the way home from Sunday dinner at Ken & Linda’s place last night. I had a paper to write on the Passion Week and knew I’d be up a little later than usual and would need a caffeine boost so I’d be able to retain my usual literary standard of mediocrity.

We pulled up in front of the store and I could see a few customers in line as I got out of Jen’s car. One of them was a sixty-something older gentleman with long, dirty gray hair and a straggly beard. He was an obvious homeless man by the look of him. I didn’t see what he bought, and I didn’t see him leave the store as I walked in.

I got Jen and I some drinks and as I turned to pay, I could see he was gone. David came into the store just then and told me Jen told him to come and tell me there was a man on the sidewalk outside and I should get him something.

I said OK, and stepped out of line.

I grabbed a sandwich and bottle of water from the cold case as I stood and talked to David.

“Mom said he was by the pay phone,” he said, “but I didn’t see him.”

I wondered how many other people hadn’t seen him? I probably would not have if David had not come into the store. I told David to go back to the car and I would be there in a minute.

I stepped outside and the gray haired man was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk next to the pay phone, holding an almost-empty bottle of water. He was looking left-to-right, right-to-left and muttering unintelligibly to himself.

I crouched down in front of him and handed him the bag with the sandwich and the water. “I thought you might want something to eat.”

He looked at me almost like he was angry, and continued the muttering and whispering and darting his head back and forth. Jen told me later the woman in the car next to us told her the gray haired man “didn’t like people to help.”

“My name is Tom,” I said. He looked at me for a second and stopped muttering. He held out his hand. I shook his hand and noticed he had lesions of some kind on his face.

“I knew a guy named Tom once,” he said clearly. Then he went back to scanning and muttering.

I listened for a moment to see if he’d say anything else I could understand, and he just looked back and forth, back and forth.

“I have to go,” I said. I wished him God’s blessing and got back into Jen’s car.

As we backed out, we could see him take the cap from the new water bottle and pour a little on the sidewalk. I told Jen we used to do that if or when someone died. We’d pour out a little beer and say, “for absent friends.”

I wondered if the gray haired man poured water for an absent friend, or if he had a friend at all. Either way, I was glad I’d spoken to him, and shook his hand.

Whatever clouded his head had cleared long enough for him to reach out his hand to mine. He’d understood me, and had spoken to me so I could understand him.

He’d known a guy named Tom once. And now again.

It occurred to me once again I have not arrived yet where I need to be. I should not have needed my wife or my son to tell me someone needed help. I need to pray for better vision, and eyes to see.

I need Jesus to break my heart for what breaks his.

I plan to do my best to see people from now on, least of these or otherwise.

Everyone deserves to be seen.