He stood at the corner of a busy thoroughfare with a folded piece of cardboard:
I DON’T DRINK
There were other words on the sign, scrawled out in desperation. Words that neither I, nor most of the other people who whizzed by, took the time to read.
The light was green. Thankfully, green. I despise that traffic light. If it catches you you’re stuck there for 2.5 minutes. And on a sunny Saturday as spring unfolds I can squeeze a lot of work into 2.5 minutes. I was traveling to the Community Garden at Christ United Methodist Church with a load of flowers I had rescued from a construction site. This is what I do, rescue flowers from development. I also grow my own food, so I really didn’t have time to plant the flowers; I had my own garden to tend.
Popping the back of my husband’s vehicle, a voice in my mind whispered, If you were standing on the corner of a busy intersection would someone stop to help?
The answer was a short. NO.
I have experienced this thought before, and today I fail to adequately express these feelings into words. I have never picked up a homeless person before. Never. But I know this, there are many faceless people in this world, people that –for whatever reason–we don’t take the time to see. I could fill volumes with the reasons why we don’t see people, but this story isn’t about me, it is about, someone who has never experienced love.
Throwing my shovel and pitchfork onto the ground the voice whispered again: If you were standing on the corner of a busy intersection would someone stop to help?
Again the answer: NO. Because no one would see you.
Turning the key in the ignition, I backed out of the parking lot and made a U-turn where I picked up the man with a bent cardboard sign.
Lord, if I pick him up please don’t let him kill me, I prayed.
“I’ve got some flowers to plant. Do you think you can help me with them?” I said through the rolled-down window.
He shouldered his backpack said, “Sure. I’m about to loose my storage space. I need all the work I can get.”
I didn’t have gloves for him; my own gloves which were ten-sizes too small for his hands.
“My name is Ross,” he said while extending his hand. I shook it. The skin was thick. Rough.
We set about the task of pulling weeds, attacking the ground with the intensity of two people who had known each other for years.
“I’ve been real lonely lately,” Ross said. “I let someone watch after my dog and she gave him to the Humane Society.”
Clumps of grass landed. “I miss my dog. He was my best friend.”
I nodded, understanding fully.
“I’m from Missouri,” Ross volunteered. “My dad was full-blood Choctaw and my momma descended from Jesse James. Her first name is James. So I guess you could say I’ve got a family of cowboys and Indians. Mind if I switch with you, I think the shovel would work better for me.”
We switched tools, cleared and planted the flower bed in twenty minutes. Looking toward my garden spot, I said, “let’s put those old corn stalks in the compost pile . . . if you have time.”
“I can clean the whole thing if you want,” Ross said. “Turn the dirt over too.”
We rolled up our sleeves and began.
“Yes, I sleep in the woods,” Ross said without my asking. “I’m homeless, but I’m not hope-less.”
He doesn’t sleep in the woods all the time. He’s staying with a friend right now. I spoke to her on the phone. He wanted me to tell her he’d be late, due to getting the job pulling weeds.
“My momma drank a lot when I was growing up, and my dad left when I was six. He used to beat the hell out of me. Momma beat me too.”
Ross needed to talk and I needed to listen. Not with my ears, but with my heart. Ross told me his story, one of drugs, alcohol, and children taken by the Department of Child Services.
“I need me a good Christian woman,” Ross said. “I got two children, both born premature, with crack in their system. I didn’t use cocaine. I was a drinker, but my wife . . . she like cocaine. The hospital took both babies right after they were born.”
Stalks of corn collected outside of my garden plot. Ross, who is over fifty years old, stacked them neatly, readied them for the compost bin. “I tried to get second born. It was boy. I knew I could raise him. I was starting to get myself together, even went to court, begged them to let me raise my boy, but they wouldn’t . . . on account of my drinking. His momma never got off crack. So I left her. Yes, I need me a good Christian woman.”
Both children landed in foster care. Both children were adopted by their foster families. “My kids are together as a family and I’m proud of that. They have something I never had.”
Even thought Ross didn’t say so, I knew he was speaking about love.
In the South we like to say, there but for the grace of God. We say it not knowing, or perhaps not caring, that there exists a smattering of people who didn’t ask to be born, who never-not even once-have known what love feels like. These are homeless, or poor, or angry, or scared (or perhaps all of these emotions) all because they weren’t wanted or loved. The obvious question is how can you give something you never had? When all you know is yelling and drinking, fists and fights how in the name of humanity is it possible to know anything else?
And so we thank God . . . for what? Because we aren’t like them? Because we have a home? Because we aren’t in jail? My friend Tara recently penned a blog that caused me pause. Please take a moment to read it here. Tara reminds her readers that Not all people who are homeless are lazy and don’t have any ambitions or dreams. Tara also wrote something particularly profound People should not be defined by their circumstances.
But we do define people by their circumstances, don’t we? We see Ross standing on the side of the road and we think he’s a bum. We think that he has done something to deserve the desperation he feels every single day. Never once does it enter our heart that he is a lonely soul whose hunger for love is so strong one can almost hear it.
We think that we deserve the best life has to offer, but what about Ross? What does he deserve?
“No one believed me when I said I stopped drinking. But I did,” Ross said while raising his chin proudly. “My momma didn’t even believe me. My step-dad didn’t either. I visited Momma before she died. Went back to Missouri and spent some time with her. She said, “Ross, I am proud of you for giving up the liquor.”
Thinking back on the sign Ross held, I realized that it was his affirmation I don’t drink. Ross is proud. He has conquered something that according to him, “had me in bondage for years.”
“God don’t make junk,” Ross continued. “He’s put on my heart a passion for the youth. I really want to talk to young people today. I think they need to hear about my life.”
I nodded. He’s right. But let’s get real, would you want Ross speaking to your teenager?
Would you? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d want someone educated and refined. You would want someone from a good family who could teach your children, someone with a degree in divinity who could teach the youth.
Teach them what?
“I’ve got me a job,” Ross said. “It starts next week. Going to be building houses,” Ross volunteered.
“Now you be careful,” I warned. “The construction field is full of drugs and alcohol. People who need a little something just to get buy.”
Ross smiled. “Aw now, I’m not worried. God has delivered me from all that. I don’t need to drink no more. I’ve been delivered.” Ross wiped dirt off his hands, pulled a briar out of the pad of his hand with his teeth. Then tucked the cardboard sign under his arm. At that moment I understood why the first words written were I DON’T DRINK. Ross is very proud of where he is.
“I’m not where I ought to be, but I’m not where I used to be either.”
I nodded, said a silent prayer of Thanksgiving.
“Only thing I’m addicted to now is chocolate. I buy chocolate chips by the bag. I’m kind of partial to the Publix brand . . . milk chocolate.”
I smiled. “Well now, we’ve all got our vices.”
Cranking the truck, I drove Ross to the CVS where his scooter was parked. Plans are currently underway to pay Ross to clean the rest of the community garden at Christ Church. If you’d like to make a monetary donation to the maintenance of the garden send your contribution to Christ United Methodist Church: Attention: Mrs. Lundstrom 1340 Woodstock Road, Roswell, Georgia 30075
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half-Truths from Appalachia. Her first book, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes earned her a SIBA and GAYA nomination. In 2014, Mercer University Press will release her next book titled Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches. Email her through her website at www.reneawinchester.com I would be honored if you’d download a copy of my work.