I was walking along a street off Vincent, the one with St. Christopher’s Church on one side and KFC on the other. I heard a loud crash from a dumpster across from the Goodwill that grabbed my attention. As I turned the glint of a half-filled water bottle in the sun caught my eye and that’s when I noticed the muddy pair of gray sneakers peeking out from an ivy covered wall.
As I got closer I followed the sneakers up to an unkemptly bearded man in black pin-striped cargo shorts lying on a brown mattress tucked between an ivy wall and a telephone pole. His only other set of clothes was in a black plastic trash bag on his left. An empty pack of cigarettes and the half-filled water bottle were on the muddy ground next to the stick he uses to protect himself.
Shards of glass and cigarettes burned to the stub littered the roots of a nearby bush, but I found no evidence of food near him except for the crumbled up red bag of peanut butter M&Ms by the phone pole.
He introduced himself as Jesus, 34, and that bag of peanut butter M&Ms was the last thing he ate. He bought it four days ago at the dollar store around the corner.
He invited me to sit, so I chose a patch of grass about two feet away from his mattress, the only comfortable looking spot I could see. He peered up at me from underneath a black, tattered ball cap as he fidgeted with the white, floral sheet he had. His fidgeting was what made me notice the bright orange syringe that was sticking out of the material of his shorts on his left inner thigh. I could tell it wasn’t stuck in him, as it moved freely as he shook his leg anxiously, but it made me take a more critical look around his sanctuary.
Sticking out of the ivy covered wall was another orange syringe and a few inches from that a thick rubber elastic band was hanging off a leaf. Tucked behind the bush were a burnt silver spoon and a lighter. I counted six empty baggies scattered all around the floor.
His speech was slurred, and he seemed out of breath as he told me his story. He couldn’t even remember his last name, or maybe he didn’t want to tell me it. When he wasn’t fidgeting with the floral sheet he had, he was pulling down the sleeves of his hoodie, trying to hide his arms, but I could see the track marks anyways. I suspected heroin.
He was comfortable talking to me, he seemed as though he needed it, but he was pretty drowsy and delusional. He told me he grew up in Southern California and has been homeless nearly all his life. He said it was his destiny, and he is the protector of all man-kind.
“I make sure everyone’s alright, you know? Like you. I protect you like I protect everyone. I watch over everyone,” Jesus told me.
I asked him about his life and daily routine. He looked up and to the right, as if he was trying to recall, but he quickly changed the subject and asked if I was his wife. When I replied no, he looked sad, and then smiled, telling me it was okay because he loves me anyway.
It was Good Friday that day. Jesus asked me if I went to go talk to his dad at church earlier and was a little disappointed when I told him I hadn’t.
I asked him what he was doing today and he told me that every day it is his mission to show his mom that he is a good person. That’s when I asked if he ever gets to see her. He replied yes, and that she was sitting right behind me. He waved to something over my shoulder, saying “Hi Mom!” very excited. I turned, but only the blank, white wall of the church was behind me.
“Look Mom, I got me a nice wife, and we live in this beautiful house,” he said as he stretched his arms wide showcasing his little square along the ivy covered wall to her.
He smiled and laughed, wiping a tear from his eye, leaving a small black smudge on his face from his dirt-covered finger as he continued staring at the wall.
We were in the back alley behind a church, one he never goes to.
“I don’t have to,” he said, “God is everywhere. He’s in you, he’s in me. I talk to him all the time.”
He nodded off for a minute, but when he came to he reintroduced himself to me as Jesus, 34, the protector of everyone- for the second time.
Every day he walks around, picking up bottles and cans. He told me he works for his money, and never accepts anything he didn’t earn himself.
Jesus wouldn’t admit that he shoots heroin, but he did tell me he does drugs often, but only when he’s “in pain because no doctors are available” to him.
Jesus is in pain often. He sacrifices himself so that others can be happy. He told me it’s the price he pays being the protector of everyone, swallowing up their sadness “like John Coffey in ‘Green Mile.’”
I understood his reference to the 1999 movie; I’ve seen it many times.
Jesus then decided it was his turn to ask some questions, like where I lived, if I had family, if I believe in 50 Cent (yes, the rapper, as he clarified), and if I believe in guardian angels.
“Yes, I believe in angels, Jesus. I think my grandfather is my guardian angel.”
“I see him. He’s watching you. He’s right there. Look, don’t you see him?”
I turned once again to the blank church wall behind me, but this time played along and said hello to my grandfather. That made Jesus smile.
He sat up and asked if I believe in demons. I told him I didn’t know. Jesus turned around, looked left, then right in a paranoid sort of way. He cupped his hand around his mouth, and whispered to me, “They’re the same thing-angels and demons. I’m one.”
I could see why Jesus made the connection between John Coffey to himself. John Coffey, played by the late Michael Duncan, was nothing short of an angel sent from Heaven to absorb everyone’s pain. He was accused of unspeakable things and was judged more harshly for his race and appearance.
Jesus told me that whenever he’s out scavenging for food or collecting bottles and cans he gets shooed away by store owners as he goes through their dumpsters, honked or screamed at by people in cars passing by, and receives the occasional threat. But as he told me this, I didn’t see sadness in his face as you’d expect, only a smile as he stared at that blank church wall.
He muttered that he doesn’t get angry at that people that treat him so poorly, he doesn’t feel sad, or hurt. He just absorbs it. He absorbs their sins so that they may continue their “beautiful life on Father’s earth.”
Jesus asked me for a kiss, so that he may take my pain away too. I think he was referring to the way John Coffey absorbs the pain of the prison warden’s wife and then lets out her pain in the form of moths in “Green Mile.”
Uncomfortable, I offered him a dollar, but he refused. I forgot, he only accepts money he earns himself.
I took his pictures, said thank you, and goodbye. As he tipped his ball cap down over his eyes I placed the dollar at the foot of his mattress and walked away.
I was crossing the parking lot of the dry cleaners nearby when I heard fast-paced footsteps across the gravel ground coming from behind me. It was Jesus, running, with the dollar I left him in his hand. He had come to return it to me.
“You earned it Jesus. Thank you for your time and your story,” I told him.
He gripped the dollar in his hand and held it close to his heart before putting it in his pocket.
“Thank you. God bless you,” he said with a smile as he turned on his way back to his brown mattress tucked between the ivy wall and telephone pole.
As I was walking down Vincent Avenue on my way home a smudged, folded cardboard sign lay limp on the red fire lane of the Dollar Tree. In thick cursive it read: “Anything helps. Homeless & Hungry. Thank you. God bless you.”
For a second I thought maybe it was Jesus’. He did, in fact, just tell me the same thing, “Thank you. God bless you.” But I dismissed it; the sign had to be someone else’s. He doesn’t accept anything he doesn’t earn himself, as he just proved to me when he tried to return the dollar.
I thought about all of the things I’ve heard about homeless people as I walked to the bus stop: Give them food, never money, they’ll only use it for drugs and alcohol. They should get off their lazy butts and get a job like the rest of us. Don’t pay attention, keep walking, don’t look them in the eye, and don’t talk to them. They’re dangerous.
Maybe they will buy drugs or alcohol. I did see broken bottles, syringes, and baggies around Jesus’ little camp. He did have track marks from injected drugs along his arms. He doesn’t have a real job, he just collects bottles. And how could you possibly keep track of the amount of homeless people you’ve seen in your life, many of them with signs or empty coffee cups, begging for money? Why would you go out and get a job when panhandlers can make an average of $11.10 an hour? That’s almost $4 more than the federal minimum wage.
But this time, I paid attention. I didn’t keep walking. I looked a homeless person in the eye. I talked to him. I sat on a patch of grass at the foot of his dingy, old mattress and had a conversation with him. He was delirious, drowsy, and slightly paranoid, but he wasn’t dangerous.
Jesus didn’t attack me for the $68 I had in my wallet, $300 phone I was recording him with, $1500 laptop I was carrying, $2000 camera I used to take a picture of him, or the pure gold necklace around my neck. He didn’t have dollar signs in his eyes as I walked by. He didn’t see me as an ATM machine. I wasn’t just another “home-ful person” (as he calls us) walking by.
I will never look at someone pushing around a shopping cart full of recyclables or someone standing on the off-ramp of a freeway with a cardboard sign again with pity, a frown, and the aftertaste of anger as they disappear in the rearview mirror.
The sight of a homeless person in the back ally of a church having a conversation with a 16 year old girl must have been one to see. The other two men camped out by the Goodwill dumpster must have had a good laugh once I left.
But I believe the Jesus that I met, if that truly is his name, really is the real-life John Coffey. People are scared of him as he walks by, he gets dirty looks, and people are mean. He has his faults, like his heroin, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s honest and works hard for himself.
I may not have let him kiss me to take my pain away, but he did do a great service. He opened my eyes and let me tell his story to open yours. And as I rode the bus home I started thinking about what he said- angels and demons are the same thing. Maybe he was a little bit of both.