I walk to work every morning. I leave between 5:45 and 6:15 am. It takes 20 minutes. It’s still dark out. I walk down a crappy stretch of road where there isn’t any sidewalk. Some mornings, it’s been so dark, I can barely see the ground. I’ve stepped on road kill a couple times. . .a squirrel and an opossum. Anyway, I almost never see anybody else out walking. Sometimes I pass an early bird at a bus stop, but that is about it. There are not even that many cars on the road at 6 am.
This morning, as I get up to the corner heading out of my *council flat,* there’s a fellow walking right ahead of me. He says “hello.” I say “hello.” I can either walk two steps behind him for twenty minutes, or walk along with the guy, having to chat.
For some reason, I don’t like to talk to people. I never have. I don’t have anything to say that can be said in what people call *casual conversation.* I don’t have anything against anybody, and I don’t think I am any better than anybody else—I just don’t have anything to say. Hell, I’m 48 years old. What is there to say, anyway? Enough has been said, already.
But here, in this situation, it would be rude to tail the guy for twenty minutes, so I walk alongside of him.
“I don’t normally ask this,” this fellow says, “but do you have a cigarette?”
I haven’t had a cigarette in fifteen years, I think to myself. I could tell this to this guy, but maybe that would be rubbing it in? Like I can quit, and he can’t. But maybe he’s never wanted to quit? And what would he care when I last had a cigarette?
“I used to smoke Kools,” I say to the guy. “I haven’t had one in fifteen years. Quit just like that, thanks to the Lord. Never had an urge for one. Not one urge for one in fifteen years.”
We’re walking along the side of the road. Through all the trash. The paper cups, the bits of paper, the fast food wrappers. . .and all the cigarette butts and empty, crumpled up cigarette packs. It must be affecting the guy, for he says:
“I sure wish I had a cigarette. I’m walking from St. Joe's hospital to Saline, and I could sure use one.”
“That’s a helluva hike,” I say.
I think about it. St. Joe's to Saline. He’s already put in about five miles, and he has six or seven more to go. I take a good look at the fellow. Skinny white guy in blue jeans, flannel shirt, chain wallet, kind of long, slicked back hair, mustache. Forty-five, fifty years old, who knows? He gives the impression of being a jailbird. But maybe he’s never even so much as spit on a sidewalk, who knows?
“Isn’t there a bus or something you can take?” I ask the guy.
“I don’t know. I could have waited and got a ride, but I would have had to wait until my friends got up. I didn’t want to stick around that hospital anymore.”
I wonder if the guy wants me to ask what he was doing at the hospital? Maybe he wants to talk about it. I don’t know. I don’t really think I want to hear about it.
“Man, I just didn’t want to be in that hospital, anymore,” he says.
I don’t say anything. We walk on in silence. At the corner of Stone School and Ellsworth, under the street light and traffic lights, I can see the fellow more clearly. He has a sad face. He has a sad face there, with a little bit of a red glow from the traffic light shining on him.
After about a minute or so, he asks:
“Where are you going?”
“Where do you work?”
“At the next light up there, there’s some office buildings over in the back, I work in one of them.”
I don’t feel like telling him the name of the company or whatever. You know, I never have liked it when you are at a party or something and somebody you meet for the first time asks you: “what do you do?” I breathe, I eat, I sleep—just like everybody else, I tell them. They sort of laugh nervously, then say, “no, I mean, what kind of work do you do?” I’m a paper-pusher, I tell them. They wait, as if I’m going to say more. But there is no more to say. Then they tell me about their job, which I care nothing about. We’ll all be dead very soon, and our employment history will be of no consequence.
“Are they hiring?” this fellow asks.
He must be out of work.
The guy almost trips over a drain hole. It’s dark, you can’t see. I’ve been down this road hundreds of times, so I know where all these things are. It sounded like the guy said “fuck” quietly to himself after he almost tripped. It has to suck, to walk from St. Joe's to Saline. And now he’s stuck walking with me, and he almost trips. I’ll say something to cheer him up:
“In fact, they’ll be laying off soon. I’ll probably be out of work in a couple months.”
That will make him feel better, to know somebody else will be looking for work. Misery loves company, as the old saying goes.
“I’ve been out of work since October,” this fellow says. “I bought a mobile home twelve years ago and I am still paying on it. I still owe seventy-five hundred. I’d hate to lose it, after all that interest I paid.”
Man, I didn’t know it could take twelve years to pay off a trailer. And seventy-five hundred to go? What’s he been paying? A hundred bucks a month? Either that, or this must be the crème de la crème of trailers.
“They might foreclose on me,” the guy says.
I never even heard of a trailer foreclosure, but I guess it can happen.
“My wife is back at St. Joe’s. She was bleeding from the vagina. It’s not her period.”
I guess you walk with a guy for a mile or so, and he will tell you anything.
“They are doing a lot of tests,” he says. “I bet it’s cancer. I had to leave. I didn't want her to see me cry.”
Right then, it starts to sprinkle. This guy is not even wearing a jacket. It’s probably fifty degrees, and here comes the rain. And he’s six miles from his trailer. I’m only about a quarter mile from work. It’ll be time to say *so long* soon.
“That’s too bad about your old lady’s vagina,” I say.
What else is there to say?
“Thanks,” he says.
I know a person. . .this person says to me: “you need to be more positive, tell people Jesus loves them. You’re always doom and gloom about war or the economy. Jesus is bigger than all that.”
I’ll be glad to get to work, for once. I wonder how many guys there are like this in Amerika? And how many more that will be like him, very soon? This guy is having hard times. Jobless. Sick wife. Can’t even meet the notes on his trailer. It’s funny, a friend sent me a news story the other day about this couple in town that were being foreclosed, and in that story, the husband had cancer and the wife was saying how her friends had been telling her to dump her husband and *save herself.*
Yeah, I think as I am walking next to this guy, I write a lot of stuff about Amerikans, living on Easy Street, living off the sweat and credit of the rest of the world, living beyond their means, not giving a shit about the poor in the rest of the world. But now more and more will be like this fellow walking next to me. And my turn will come, soon enough, I suppose.
Tell people Jesus loves them. . .
“Listen,” I say to the guy, “I’m gonna have to head off here toward work.”
“Thanks for talking,” he says.
Well, you get one like this, right next to you, with the sad face and all, and you can’t help but feel sorry.
“Listen,” I say to the guy. . .and then I don’t say anything.
For some reason, it isn’t easy just to say “Jesus loves you.” I wonder why that is?
“Listen,” I say to the guy, “you know there’s a couple gas stations up at State and Ellsworth. You can get a pack of cigarettes up there.”
“I’m broke,” he says, “that’s why I’m walking.”
I stop and take out my wallet. I have two dollars.
“Here,” I say to the guy, “buy a pack.”
He looks at the two dollars.
“Thanks for offering,” he says, “but cigarettes are six bucks a pack.”
“Six? Man, they’ve really went up.”
We stand there, looking at the two dollars. They might as well be pennies.
“Well,” I say, “you want the two bucks, anyway? You can buy a pop or a candy bar or something.”
“No, that’s all right.”
The sprinkle of rain starts to get a little heavier.
“I got to head off here to work,” I say.
“Nice meeting you,” he says, and he sticks out his hand. We shake hands and he walks off. When he’s about twenty feet away, I say:
“Jesus loves you,” but it’s more to myself, I guess. I doubt he heard it.
Although He has millions of stars to think about
Although the sun, the moon and the stars are in His care
How wonderful to know, wherever you may go
He can be reached just by a whispered prayer
It matters to Him about you