I went to my first flea market yesterday morning. But that’s another story. I found a coffee table I was looking for much quicker than I expected, so I had some time to grab breakfast. I was too lazy to search for a good place, so once I saw the golden arches I just settled for a future coronary, the likes of which I’m predicting will deliver its heavy hand on March 23, 2054.
There are these people in Nashville who sell newspapers called The Contributor. Everybody here, though, just refers to them as Homeless Papers because that’s who’s always selling them: people who need some money and can’t find work sign up to stand at street corners and downtown intersections and sell these for one dollar. These guys are very easy to spot because they all wear a laminated piece of lime-yellow paper with the bolded words, “The Contributor. $1.00” around their necks.
One of these guys came into McDonald’s while I’m eating my two disgusting burritos and hash brown (do they really have to put so much cheese on them?). I have no idea what he said to some guy wearing a red shirt, but he certainly hadn’t accosted the man, from now on referred to as Mr. Red. But while I was sitting at my table, I could hear everything Mr. Red was saying to Homeless Guy. He was just wailing on him with his best attempt at verbal degradation, which wasn’t very impressive because I don’t think Mr. Red was too educated.
I’m not sure what started it all. I don’t think Homeless Guy had asked for cigarette assistance because he held a lighter in one of his hands. I don’t even know what all he asked Mr. Red to do, or if he even asked him to do anything period. Maybe he just asked him for a few bucks. I’m not sure. Whatever it was, Mr. Red felt the doors of permission had been opened for him to unleash verbal hell.
I couldn’t actually see Mr. Red. His back was to me and he sat in a high-backed booth. But his voice could be heard by everyone in the establishment. He told Homeless Guy, “Fuck off,” several times and that he’s sick of seeing his type fouling up the air around him. He brought out his informed politics by reminding Homeless Guy how it’s people like him who bring the rest of us down because their laziness and lack of initiative is something we inevitably have to end up paying for through taxes and et cetera to the max. The same closed-minded conservative excuses people of the South hold onto like a second lifeline to feel somehow justified. A longing for a caste system, if you will. We always want someone below us. And Mr. Red is a self-made man. He’s worked hard. He obviously owes nothing to anybody.
Mr. Red proceeded to talk about how one of his friends was asked for money by another Homeless Papers seller and could smell the alcohol on the guy’s breath when the day hadn’t even hardly begun. Mr. Red got all hypothetical as he asks Homeless Guy why he would give money to people like that. Homeless Guy stuttered but tried to explain how he didn’t know about that guy and how he’s not that guy, a fair argument in my mind. And I was sitting there taking in all of Homeless Guy; he wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t quite there mentally—you could tell that much. But he wasn’t drunk. I’ve seen drunken homeless men. This guy was sober. Tired, but dry nonetheless.
Homeless Guy started to try and sit down at Mr. Red’s booth. Mr. Red promptly said, “I didn’t say you could sit down,” which caused Homeless Guy to slowly stand back up baffled. Mr. Red continued to expound on why Homeless Guy and all people like him are a bane to his existence. Hard-working Americans, you know. People like Mr. Red have it tough, what with food in front of him and all that.
Two other guys sat nearby. They were listening in on the conversation and talking. I picked up scant bits here and there. They were also poking fun at Homeless Guy. Okay sure, he looked funny. Awkward a bit. Hunched over. Lacking teeth. Not articulate by any stretch of the imagination. But this was getting ridiculous.
Mr. Red got hypothetical again and asked Homeless Guy who he thinks he is to come up and ask him whatever it is he did. Homeless Guy began to explain how he’s lived in this town for thirty years, but my listening to the rest of his explanation was interrupted by seeing how the two other guys were laughing to each other and mouthing, “Thirty years!” with mock awe. It was three against one.
The whole time I’m sitting there wondering what I should do. I instantly want to say something. It would undoubtedly begin along these lines directed at Mr. Red:
“Hey man. What is your problem?”
But that would be rude, even if I would feel perfectly justified in saying such a thing. I’ll be honest enough to admit I think it would have been completely appropriate, well aware of the valid arguments saying otherwise. Still, though, I don’t have such gumption. So instead, I thought about maybe just ignoring Mr. Red and addressing his victim instead:
“Do you need help with something, man?”
But I don’t do this, either. My tongue is tied. No, false. My tongue is free, but limp. It’s a flag on a summer day. A limb swathed in Novocain. It’s comatose. Vegetative state, but still aware of the life surrounding it. I believe I’m a mime cut off from the outside world by a box when my environment is anything but.
And still anger boils. It’s like watching a puppy get kicked. Actually, no, it’s not. If I saw someone kick a puppy, I’d be on top of them in a second, bludgeoning their face with my fists. But this is a human being. So it should be different. Of a higher offense. But it’s not because I’m just sitting there. Apparently I have more compassion on a stray dog.
And the whole time I sat there mentally chastising, berating, and simultaneously trying to work up my confidence and courage, my chance to say something left. The two of them got up and walk out to smoke. I see that Mr. Red is an independent contractor of sorts. You can always spot them by their attire. He had a nice ponytail.
I wonder in these situations who God loves more. I sit there watching and believe God is on the side of Homeless Guy—a defenseless creature. A man who is down and out on his luck probably because of a combination of both his own decisions but also those of an oppressive economic system that doesn’t care if this man stays the way he is. But the disenfranchised, the belittled, the poor are always on God’s heart. This is a sentiment easy to find in Scripture.
I tend to believe God would be more disappointed with Mr. Red. Ashamed, dismayed, unsupportive. And I write off Mr. Red because he rubs me the wrong way. He doesn’t act in love, so I withhold love from him. I believe God should do this to Mr. Red. I judge Mr. Red. I condemn him to hell in my head. Because I am better than him. This is what I think. And yet I never give him a chance. I don’t know Mr. Red. I don’t know what goes on in his life. I don’t know how much of his time he spends helping others. Perhaps Mr. Red was just having a really horrible day, and unfortunately Homeless Guy was the recipient of the catharsis. Maybe Mr. Red is really a great guy. I might even like him. But I don’t give him a chance. I don’t give him the benefit of the doubt, the possibility of a nasty argument with his wife that morning still causing a storm to rage in his head at McDonald’s.
And that’s typically where my train of thought would have stopped. I usually assume it is just these two people when wondering who God loves more. But there is a third person in this. And it’s me. The bystander. The coward. The weakling. Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness, but you have to be open to it. Apparently I am closed. Locked down. And this is the same guy who will sit at his computer and write about how the Church needs to be about service, love, restoration, unity, reaching out to those who have no one to look on them in love, and et cetera to the max. I am a business card with no phone number. I take up space but have no substance. I am a marshmallow. I am a painter who will not touch life.
And yet, I choose sides in this debate, mentally pulling for and feeling for Homeless Guy. It’s possible I’m quicker to have compassion on Homeless Guy than Mr. Red because when I see people like Homeless Guy I think of Charlie who lives in Searcy, Arkansas—Charlie, the guy living on government assistance with whom I had a weekly Bible study one day and a trip to Subway another. And so when I see someone verbally attacking or talking down to people like Homeless Guy, I picture them doing the same to Charlie. And I get mad. But obviously not mad enough to say anything. Instead I sit there mute. This is what we label as a sad existence.
Guess where I went from McDonald’s? It was Sunday. Morning. To church I drove, one that unfortunately does not offer holes to crawl into and die.