It was the Saturday before my 40th birthday, and like most Saturdays I started my day by running with my girlfriend.
Our run was per usual. We started in the same place, ran the same distance, talked about the same things and finished in the same spot.
While the spot we finished was the same, the ending was different. It marked the beginning of my effort to complete works of mercy. Of course I didn’t know that then, officially, it was still a week before my launch date.
I live in San Marco, one block from the shopping square. San Marco has always been my favorite neighborhood in Jacksonville. It is where I got my first kiss, and where I discovered how yummy it was to dip French fries in ranch dressing. It is also where I spent part of my first real paycheck on a lamp from the Wardroom. (Almost 20 years later, I still love that lamp.) It was also in San Marco where I started dating an old high school friend whom eventually I married.
I could go on and on about all the milestones of my life that happened in San Marco. However, I feel like the fact that I live without a laundry room, bonus room or a proper-sized walk-in closet speaks for my commitment and love for the neighborhood.
When we ended our run in our usual spot, I was lamenting that I wouldn’t be doing much clothes shopping any time soon. Not because I was giving all my money to complete works of mercy, but because I hated the new fashion trends I had seen.
They reminded me of the eighties, and while I have yet to tire from the music of that era, I did not want to dress like Ally Sheedy did in the movie Breakfast Club before she got kissed by the hunky Emilio Estevez. After that kiss, she probably ended up washing her hair and dressing more like Molly Ringwald. (I would have.)
No, I am not doing shoulder pads again. While my body is far from perfect, I am not interested in hiding what’s left of my shape behind boxy sweaters and long skirts. I have a feeling that day will come soon enough. No need to rush.
So we window shopped these new trends en route back to my house. While discussing what was reasonable to wear from the store displays, (and firmly agreeing on the fact that black and gold lame would never be reasonable to wear) we went from looking at hopeless fashions to looking at a homeless man.
Of course he wasn’t in a store window, but rather displayed on the ground laying in front of one of the unopened stores like some sort of iPhone junkie waiting for his latest fix.
My senses were overwhelmed upon seeing him. By sight he was a black man in dirty clothes with very few teeth. By smell, he had not showered in a long time , and I noticed I had stopped my intake of air to prevent inhaling any more of his rank stench. By sound, he had spoken to us and yet I couldn’t make out any of his words. Not one.
We didn’t break stride. We politely said hello and left him on the sidewalk. I didn’t have any money on me and certainly no food. It was easy to believe I had no choice but to continue on. Besides, even though it was my celebratory pre-birthday week, technically, my works of mercy had not started yet. I was still 39. If he was just a week later, I could help him.
But his need was now and while I didn’t know exactly what his needs were, I couldn’t deny that they seemed rather basic. I also thought about how our call to serve has nothing to do with self-imposed schedules, nor does it have anything to do with how prepared we are physically or mentally for the challenge. Our call to serve others really comes down to a simple willingness. Are we willing?
I couldn’t ignore such an obvious need, although I clearly did not feel mentally prepared to do it – not to mention the fact that I had not even had my coffee yet.
When I got home, I started packing a small shopping bag with sundry food staples- graham crackers, club crackers, M&M’s, nuts, and the hardest from which to part – a jar of peanut butter.
I love peanut butter, and eat it every day. I recently decided if I ever get diagnosed with a terminal illness I am going to eat an entire jar of peanut butter. I guess it’s one of those bucket-list items that I have not given myself permission to do because of the high calorie content of my obsession, and my desire to not look like the 40-year old woman I have become.
It also occurred to me that food allergies, like floral prints, are very much in vogue. What do you do if you are homeless and hungry and someone gives you peanut butter — or gluten? Or, what if it’s a double whammy and the peanut butter has gluten in it?
Certainly the homeless don’t have access to an EpiPen. I guess when you are hungry you don’t get to have food allergies or food preferences. You’re probably just looking for any sustenance to fill a dull and painful ache.
While I hoped he liked peanut butter as much as I did, I searched for a plastic butter knife to include in the bag. I was getting frustrated because while I had an array of disposable spoons and forks, I didn’t have a single plastic butter knife.
I thought about how ridiculous I was being– thinking like someone who had the luxury of spreading my peanut butter with a knife, with my bread on a plate, with a napkin to keep me tidy and a drink to keep it from getting stuck in my throat. The homeless don’t get these luxuries. So, while I threw a plastic spoon in the bag, accepting it was the best I could do, I realized what are needs to me are actually luxuries to others. I grabbed a $10 bill to complete my offering and appease any lingering worry I had about potential food allergies, and I hurried out the door.
I got in my car, my thoughts racing in every direction. What would I say? Would I somehow be insulting him? What would he say to me? What if he yelled at me? Oh God, what if he tried to hug me? I hate hugs — even by people who aren’t smelly. What if he wasn’t there? What if I was too late? What if one of the San Marco business owners scolded me for pandering to bums in the upscale shopping square? What if by giving him food and a little money, I was encouraging him and all his homeless friends to hang out in my beautiful historic neighborhood? He did have friends, didn’t he?
I didn’t know one answer to any of those questions. But as I turned into the square the questions abruptly stopped, and I was filled with just a tiny bit of hope. Hope that he wouldn’t be there– that I wouldn’t have to learn the answers to all those questions.
It turns out he wasn’t there. He was gone. I was ashamed at my relief.
I did drive around the small shopping district looking for him, but I couldn’t find him. I am not sure where he went or what God’s intention was for that experience. Perhaps it was to show me how hard this was going to be and how ill-prepared I feel to complete this ministry. Or perhaps it was to strengthen my resolve that despite the fact that I may not know any of the answers to the questions that will inevitably a rise, I am committed to do this work anyway.
And while the experience felt as anti-climatic as seeing what is supposed to be the latest fashion trends simply recycled from a previous decade, it still reminded me that the kind of work I intend to do doesn’t go out of style like parachute pants. It is timeless — and for a woman who is not, that feels like it could be the best birthday present ever.