June 9, 2008

Doing the Right Thing

"The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."--Albert Einstein

The dark black man sat on the curb of the gas station on St. Charles Avenue looking broke, tense and desperate. I took it in as I parked and locked the van and got out carrying my magnetic blue Starbucks cup. I looked back, we met eyes, and I turned back to him.
"Can I give you a dollar, man?" I asked. He indicated that I could, so I approached and gave. I was turning away, when he said, "I just got out of prison. I need three dollars so I can get into the Salvation Army."
"Oh, man!" I said. "I hear you. Okay. Okay, when I come back out, I'll give it to you."
"Thank you, sir."
"Yes sir," I said back, and went into the convenience store. On the way to the hot chocolate machine I thought, pennace for my racist thoughts of earlier. I'd been inwardly venting anger at the intrusive, organ-grinding booom booom speakers in the cars and SUVs of mostly-black men. I had thought some mean and atavistic thoughts that belonged back in slavery days. It made me feel sick, mean and hopeless to do that. I felt stupid and weak to revert to that, and I didn't like how it made me feel. Finally, I had asked God to help me get a grip, and He had, and I was over it.
I drew my cup and filled one for him. Me and the Arab guy at the register went through our nightly hello-how-are-you-routine as I paid, then changed a ten to two fives. I folded one next to his cup and went outside to him.
"I don't have a lot of money, man, but here's five dollars and a cup of hot chocolate." He took the five and put the cup beside him and thanked me.
"People don't listen," he said.
"People are naturally selfish and afraid. They all got their own troubles," I said.
"People just don't listen."
"I listened. I heard you, brother. Some people listen." He looked at me standing about six feet away. I knelt on one knee and said:
"Don't get discouraged, man. It's tough out here, but you can make it. Just try to do the right thing. Be honest with people and don't be afraid. There's work here and you can find it. Take any job you can get and work hard at it. You'll see. Not everybody is a bastard. Pray to God, and people will help you out. And don't drink. You know how it always leads to trouble."
"I don't know. I think I might as well just go on and kill myself."
"Don't do that to yourself!" I said urgently, coming slightly nearer. You have to be careful no matter how much you are trying to help. Some men are insane and can go off on you. It happens all the time here in New Orleans. There is a lot of hard suffering here and always has been. Prison in Louisiana is no tea party. No prison anywhere is, except maybe the exclusive detention centers they maintain for people with wealth or inside knowledge. This guy hadn't been in one of those. More likely he'd been at Angola Prison Farm, cutting sugar cane with other prisoners who had machetes, and lifer-prisoners on horses with shotguns and itchy trigger-fingers guarding them. I'd heard that prisoners sometimes cut their own hamstrings (or yours) in order to get out of work for a day. It has happened so often that medics punish them by pulling the hamstrings back and sewing them without anesthetic. Everything has a price.
He hung his head. I said, "Look, brother, don't go doing that to yourself. You don't have to hurry up and die because it's hard. God will take you when He is ready. Don't go jumping in the Mississippi River. You can make it out here. I know what you're going through, I been there too. Pray to God for strength, and He will give it to you."
I was walking back to the van. I heard him say, "Why, I just did pray to God, and then you came along." I stopped and looked at him again. It made me laugh out loud. "See?" I said. "It works!"
"God works through people who believe in him," I said with the conviction of knowing that a thing is true. As I drove away, I felt grateful and moved by what had happened in only a few moments. I wondered if I had given my gift in the right spirit, without selfish motives. I didn't want to pollute the thing with false pretenses or even mild grandiosity.
"Did I do that right?" I asked out loud. "Was that okay?" A small chill came over me, as it does when I imagine that God is saying yes. The thing I'm sure about is that if he asks God to help him, God will help him. It might take him awhile to figure out how He is doing it. It did me. It's never what you expect. You seldom get what you want. You always get what you need.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike: nice writing. glad to know you're alive and well. BILLJA5
DYLANISTO LIVES!!!

Anonymous said...

Not bad. There are moments when people can offer some compassion, even if it doesn't add up to a billion dollars.

Post a Comment