Personal failure comes in many colors and shapes. It can be the result of a man’s sin but those times are remedied when a man humbles himself. Then there are the failures that accompany regret and haunting times that result from a lack of courage, lack of knowledge or simple selflessness.
One more hour and the night would begin its retreat giving way to another wet Seattle day. A man shuffled along, his head drooped down with discouragement. His missing underwear and wet clothes chaffed the inside of his thighs with each step as he wondered the night away unable to find a place out of the weather. For the umpteenth time his sleeve served to wipe away the dripping snot from his nose. His stomach grumbled and he couldn’t remember the last time he wasn’t hungry. The beginning stages of hypothermia dulled his thinking more than usual.
Five months ago he had a home, a wife, and a job. Since then he had endured several beatings and abuses living on the street. His limited ability to process cause and effect followed a crooked trail in his thinking. In-spite of this handicap his intuitive instinct to survive brought him out of downtown where a plethora of services existed for the homeless but few for the mentally ill. Here on the edges of the suburbs, there were very few services but it was a safer place, away from the downtown predators that stalked and took advantage of him.
Without really looking he slowly angled across the street. A blue pickup slowed but turned wide and went on by. For the last hour interior house lights had begun flipping on symbolizing warmth, safety, and full bellies. His deranged thinking managed an incoherent prayer as he continued on down the hill.
Grayquill had seen instantly the man was not doing very well and he groaned as his conscious told him to go back. “Ugh!”
“How are you doing? You don’t look so good. Where you headed?”
Alex looked up and there was the blue pickup that had passed by earlier. A face leaned low and peered at him across the cab. In his trance like state his brain tried to line up if this was a threat or something else. Cautiously he stepped off the curb and leaned low to peer into the passenger side window. The warm air from the little truck brushed past his face inviting him closer. “Up, down uh…, that way.”
“You hungry? Get in we will go down the hill for some breakfast.”
“Pancakes? Can I have pancakes?”
“Yeah, there will be pancakes,” Grayquill pushed the door open.
In the restaurant Alex ordered pancakes and Grayquill quizzed him on how he had come to such a state. Alex’s words did not track in a straight line. Patrons at another table were eyeing them both and Grayquill being way out of his comfort zone keep telling himself that it didn’t matter what others were thinking. It bothered Grayquill that it bothered him. He followed the guest’s eyes to Alex’s feet. No socks, loosely laced ankle high boots, the laces had been tied together where they had broken and a small puddle of water had formed around his boot.
Several hours later in Grayquill’s office Alex spoke to his wife on the telephone. “I have a job I’m getting better maybe I can come home.” Grayquill had given Alex a broom with instructions to sweep the shop, which he was unable to accomplish. Desperation changed sweeping a floor into a job that would return him home to his wife.
The conversation did little to loosening the chain of responsibility that grew heavier by the hour around Grayquill’s neck. “Alex, can I talk to your wife?”
“Jenny, my new boss wants to talk to you”
“Hi Jenny, my name is Grayquill and I picked up Alex this morning. He wasn’t doing to good. What is going on with Alex? Can you tell me how Alex ended up on the street?”
They were divorced. She explained paranoia and emotional issues that lead to their divorce and now Alex’s homelessness. He had a mother and father who had washed their hands of him. Her story reinforced Grayquill’s first attempt to rid himself of the gentleman. Handing Alex some bills Alex had stared at them and suddenly threw them back at Grayquill almost shouting, “666.” Large scared eyes glared at Grayquill. The serial number of the bill had three sixes scattered within the number. That was when the chain first slipped around Grayquill’s neck.
Grayquill decided the best place to take Alex was the Union Gospel Mission. Half way there Alex comprehended Grayquill’s plan and almost broke down crying as he began pleading with Grayquill to not take him there. “Those people will take me apart.” The chain around Grayquill’s neck got a bit heavier. Turning around, not knowing where else to go they headed back to Grayquill’s print shop. That afternoon Alex got a shower and some clean clothes. Grayquill in his ignorance did not think to buy the man new underwear. The pants Grayquill had scrounged up had a small hole in the right check of the buttocks and allowed an extremely white piece of skin to shine through.
It wasn’t long before an employee wanted to know what was going on and when Alex would be leaving. Alex slept that night on the floor of the print shop. The next two nights were a repeat. Grayquill was getting nothing done – his days centered around Alex, and what to do with him. The weight of responsibility was beyond what Grayquill understood or was willing to accept. Phone calls for advice and help produced ideas but none helpful. In the end Grayquill to his own personal shame dropped off Alex in front of a Welfare Office even though he knew there was no help for him there.
Grayquill here - This experience has haunted me over the years and I carry it as a personal failure. The enormity of the responsibility of just one homeless person kicked my butt. I wish I had shown more courage and this story had a good ending. I have no idea if Alex survived. I am pretty sure I will find out one day when I stand in front of my maker.
Many might say, you did good by helping Alex even if it was only for a few days. You and I both know that is not the truth. Years later I was able to serve in an organization that helped homeless people. That was a much better experience and maybe there I did do some good.
Is there a lesson? Of course there is: Homelessness is one of the very complex problems in our world. Progress can be made by sharing the burden. Many hands make light work…or something like that.
Sorry, for the long post…