September 3, 2009

My Friend Joseph

When I saw this man sharing the little he had with Moe, the police horse, I was reminded of the many things street people have taught me: 1) They don’t always want a handout 2) Sometimes they just want to tell their stories 3) They are not all mentally unstable 4) Many share the little they have, with the animals & birds 5) Everyone is a teacher to a learner.....

And then I remembered Joseph....

A man nearing 70, Joseph was tall and very lanky with an engaging personality. I don't remember how we met or how we became friends. I suppose Joseph was just another familiar face on my daily walks from Government Center to my office blocks away. Greeting and opening doors for people entering local restaurants; he was known and liked by many. He told me once I was his friend, I hope so, for his person taught me much about kindness and gratitude.

Joseph lived in a small cheap room. It was difficult for him to afford both his medications and food, so he supplemented by panhandling on the streets of downtown Miami. Asking for spare change, he was gracious and understanding. He could make a person feel comfortable when they refused him. I really don’t remember giving him that much, but when I did, the next time I’d see him, he would put up his hands and say he didn’t need anything this time. He would then fall into place next to me and we’d walk together talking. Once Joseph told me he had spent the holiday dinner with “Mr. So & So” from the courthouse. He just assumed I would know this attorney. Joseph described the day as “swell” and told me every detail of their shared meal. What a pleasure for Mr. So & So and his family to have Joseph at their celebration!

One of the last times I saw him, he was standing outside of Granny Feelgood’s. When we hugged I could feel the bones of his ribcage under his thin coat. My South Beach breakfast was perfect for a diabetic. Joseph was indignant, surely I needed a good breakfast to do my job, but I insisted, he was so hungry. After much coaxing, he received it. Then for over a year, he seemed missing from the streets. No one seemed to know where he was or what had happened to him. Then one day Joseph came walking down 1st Avenue. I hardly recognized him. His glasses were gone, his clothes were filthy and he carried a large garbage bag over his shoulder.

“Joseph!! Joseph!!” I called to him as he passed by. As he turned I saw a wild, out-of-control look in his eyes, he didn’t recognize me, he said he was going someplace and he was in a BIG hurry. I knew he was homeless, and he very afraid of me. Sadly I remembered all our walks together, Joseph seemed lost forever. I feared for his safety.

Later that month I ran into him again, he had his glasses on and he was quite friendly though he did not recognize me. When I inquired how he was doing he related he had stayed with "the folks" for a while but they had their own problems so he moved on. By “folks” Joseph meant his mother and father, like many older people, he was now in a time warp. Did he need anything I asked? No, he happily assured me, he was doing just fine, everyone has struggles he reminded me.

Recently while walking up Flagler from the Bay, I was thinking about the hustle and bustle of life and how desperately so many of us need to kick our lives into slow motion. Then I caught a glimpse of a man in a long thin coat quietly feeding small sparrows from his brown bag. Watching for a moment, then his eyes rose to meet mine, “They are hungry too” he said gently as he returned to feeding the small birds now gathering around him. That was the last time I saw Joseph. I remember reading not one sparrow is forgotten by God, so I know He will not forget Joseph.

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