I haven’t seen Michael in well over a month. I look for him every time I walk down Hawthorne, one of southeast Portland’s busier streets, packed full of vintage boutiques, ethnic restaurants, food carts, grocery stores and too many coffee shops to choose from. Truly, half the battle in going to a coffee shop is choosing which one to go to.
I met Michael outside of New Seasons Market earlier in the year. I was on my way to walk past him as he sat on the ground with his large backpack beside him when he waved his arm out and asked if I wanted to hear a joke. I pulled my headphones off and accidentally yelled, “sorry, what?” as if one of us were deaf. Kyle came and sat down beside him on a skateboard. Kyle is not yet twenty-one, has long curly hair that he hides under a fisherman’s hat and wears glasses that are almost the same size as his eyes. His oversized clothing hides his obvious small frame.
Michael is in his late forties, early fifties perhaps but I don’t want to offend him. Michael’s skin is leathery, but not in an offensive to vegans kind of way, in a way that suggests he has been through a lot, weathered some storms and still made it look good. He has dreadlocks down to his shoulders and I counted four different colors in them: blonde, brown, salt and pepper. His hair art includes a few wooden beads and one plastic orange spider. He wears a fleece pullover and a pair of jeans that have writing all over them. His eyes are bright blue and they are beautiful.
Though I haven’t seen him in a while, it’s his eyes that I think about most often. They were glazed over the first night I met him, but no amount of glazing could hide how blue they were. There he sat on the ground, waving people down, asking them one of two questions: “do you wanna hear a joke?” “do you wanna smoke some pot?” Of the two, I was glad I got the former, but that didn’t stop him from asking me the latter. Don’t worry, mom, all of those elementary after-school programs must have worked, I just said no.
“Do you wanna hear a joke?” Michael asked again as I removed my headphones. “Yea,” I said, “I love jokes!” He smiled and paused, Kyle looked at him, back at me then back at Michael. Michael’s smile made me smile, and so I smiled and I waited. “Shit,” Michael said, “I wasn’t ready, I thought you were gonna say no, hold on, hold on…” Michael scrunched up his face as he nodded his head back, obviously trying to think of a joke but coming up short. “I got one, I got one,” Kyle said. “No, hold on,” Michael said, and back and forth they went before I interjected. “I have a joke,” I said. Michael waved his hands at me as if he were slapping the air, “yea, yea, okay, yea, yea, you tell a joke…”
“What does Snoop Dogg wash his clothes with?” I asked, hoping they knew their nineties hip-hop/R&B, either that or assuming they knew a thing or two about Snoop Dogg since they offered me pot. They were both silent.
“BLEEEEE-ATCH!” I yelled as I waved one arm out.
“OOOOOOHHHHHH!” Michael yelled as he laughed, Kyle agreed with an “OOOOHHH” of his own. “OOOHHHHH, that was good,” Michael kept on, “that was real good, BLEEEE-ATCH!” and he stuck his fist out for a fist bump. I bumped his fist with mine and I laughed with them, not really wanting to leave but not really knowing how to stay.
“Do you want a cigarette?” Michael asked, and I debated for about three seconds before saying, “actually, you know what? Yea. Yea I do.” I don’t smoke. I mean, I used to, quite heavily in college, but I quit when I found out the boy I liked thought smoking wasn’t cute. Literally, he saw me smoking one night and said, “ah man, and I thought you were cute.” I quit the next day. Things never worked out with that boy, but I don’t regret it, I quit smoking… well worth it. So I don’t smoke now, but on occasion, every so often, the scent of a cigarette smells less like death and more like the scent of a carefree girl I’d like to hang out with.
I don’t know if I wanted to hang out with who I once was for a little while, if I wanted to hang out with Michael for a little while, or if I actually just wanted a cigarette and it felt liberating to say so without worrying what others would think, but I told analytical JJ to chill back for a minute and I reached for the cigarette. I asked him if I could sit down with him and he said “of course, sister!” It felt all too appropriate for him to call me sister; it felt right, like even though we were meeting for the first time we were in this life thing together, at least for that space in time, both struggling, in different ways, but both still able to smile.
Kyle offered me some leftover Chinese food that a passer-by had given him, Michael offered me a beer, I declined both saying the cigarette suited me just fine. “See, we’re friendly,” Michael said, “most people think we just wanna ask them for stuff, but I’ll offer people anything I have if they let me… I’ll even give em’ my pot.” I couldn’t help but wonder if it was less about giving someone pot and more about having someone to smoke pot with. I don’t think it matters which one, the mere fact that Michael wanted to either give what he had away, even if it was pot, or invite someone into community with him, even if it was over smoking pot, made him a beautiful human to me, and honestly, veritably characteristic of Jesus. I sat and watched people go in and out of New Seasons, many wondering what a girl in Hunter rain boots was doing sitting on the ground next to some “homeless” guys.
From what I gathered, Michael chooses to live his life the way he does. And while he is homeless in the sense that he doesn’t have a home, he is more of a wanderer and a traveler, made obvious by the large backpack at his side and worn out shoes on his feet. He shows up and disappears when and where he sees fit. He used to hitchhike everywhere and when I asked how he got around now he said, “I’m old, honey, I take the train.” He looked tired.
“What happens if you offer an undercover cop some pot?” I asked, “this isn’t Washington, you know? It ain’t legal on this side of the bridge.” Michael laughed, “Please, sister, the cops don’t care about pot. You know what would happen if they pulled up right now? They’d get out of their cars and say ‘Michael, we’ve talked about this,’ and I’d say, ‘oh, yea, I know, sorry officers, I’m leaving.’ And that’s it. All the cops know me. Everyone knows me. I’m not trying to cause any trouble, I’m just trying to make people smile… watch…” A guy with a baseball hat on was about to walk by us, “Hey man,” Michael yelled, “hey, I like your hat!”
“Thanks, man,” the guy said as he kept walking. “Yea man, you want some pot?” Michael asked with a big grin. I laughed because though I should have, I didn’t see that question coming. The guy declined. “He didn’t really smile,” I said. “Nah, but you did,” Michael laughed as he pointed at me. “OOOHHHH,” I said, “fair enough, fair enough.” We fist bumped again. “I’m not trying to get people to smoke pot,” Michael said, “it’s just all I have to offer. I offered it to you and you said no, I respect that. The difference is you said no and then you sat down. That’s rare. That’s why you’re my sister.” Maybe it was me just wanting it to be more of a storybook moment than it was, that is, if there are storybooks that involve panhandlers offering pot to strangers, but I swear I think his eyes twinkled.
After finishing my cigarette I stuck around for another hour almost. Michael asked if I wanted to hear a story and I told him I loved stories. He pulled out a newspaper from Helena, Montana dated from last fall. The cover story featured him and a Portland cat he rescued one night in the rain while on Hawthorne. Michael asked if I would read the story out loud, so I did.
When Michael rescued the cat he listed her as found on craigslist, but no one claimed her. Not knowing what else to do, he named the cat Tabor after Mt. Tabor near where the cat was found and ended up hitchhiking with her on his backpack for ten months. He hitchhiked down to California, back up to Portland and over to Helena, Montana. After traveling 3,600 miles together, Michael had a friend in Helena take Tabor to a veterinarian where a microchip was discovered and the owner was found. Tabor had apparently been missing since 2012 and her real name was apparently Mata. “I like Tabor,” I said as I paused in my reading, “I do too,” said Michael, followed by, “you’re a good reader. Keep reading.”
Michael returned Tabor to her owner in Portland and though he never originally wanted a cat, he had obviously grown attached to her after all that time together. Michael was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “I’m homeless. Depression is a big thing out there. That cat was a rainbow in a dark world. I didn’t want a cat in the first place, I just thought I was saving someone’s cat, and that’s what I’ve done. Now I’ve grown attached to her. My pack will be twenty pounds lighter, but a big hole, a big hole.”
While reading Michael would blurt out, “wait, can you read that part again? Read that part again!” I re-read his accomplishment of 3,600 miles, 20 of which Tabor walked and spending the rest on Michael’s backpack. I re-read any time he was directly quoted in the newspaper, “and that’s what I said,” Michael would say, “just like that, that’s exactly what I said.”
“This is amazing, man,” I said, “what a good story.” Michael was silent. “Do you ever get tired of traveling?” I asked him. It seemed as if he was close to saying yes, but before he allowed himself to cave he jolted himself up and semi-excitedly said “no, this is what I do, I love it, I love the road.” He changed the subject, “hey, you read really well, will you read something else? Do you need to go?” I had nowhere to be so I didn’t bother pretending like I did, “nah, I don’t need to go, what else you got?” He pulled out a book he had been carrying with him for an obviously long time and asked me to read a few incredibly funny excerpts out loud. I read to him and Kyle as we sat on the street corner, people passing and Michael laughing loudly, straight from his gut.
There the three of us sat, Kyle, the twenty-year-old kid on a skateboard, Michael, the middle-aged vagabond with worn out shoes, and me, the thirty-year-old girl walking home from the grocery store, curious enough to want to hear a joke and lonely enough to want to stick around for a while.
Perhaps that is what I should be honest about, wanting their company. It’s funny because I planned to write about people needing people, coming from the position of Michael and Kyle needing people. I was going to be the people they needed, the one who took the time to look them in the eyes, notice how bright they were and stick around long enough to hear their stories and make them feel better. I was going to say things like “I’m sorry” and offer some sort of help that didn’t involve money or pot, encouragement, perhaps? A cough drop? One of my smiles? I was going to offer, not be offered something.
Michael was willing to offer up whatever he had, which for him was pot. And if you’re obsessively worried about the fact that someone was offering me pot, you’re missing the point. Besides, I learned how to say no to drugs in sixth grade, forgot by seventh and quit by college.
Years ago when I was in Africa I remember the same experience of people being willing to give whatever they had, which for them was usually food or chickens or empty water bottles. The point wasn’t what they offered, the point was that they were offering whatever they had. It’s interesting to me that I can think an empty water bottle is a wonderful gift simply because of who is offering it, an orphaned African child who owns not much else, and how I can be so offended by the same gesture that comes from a man who owns not much else except pot. If we take our eyes off of the thing being offered and look at the situation, they are very much the same. Some of the most generous people I have ever met in my life are people who have next to nothing. Those people include quite a bit of Ugandans and Michael.
What was it for me? What could I offer? Surely I could offer something if Michael could.
What did that even mean, “if Michael could”? Honestly, and this is ugly, it meant I thought I was better than Michael, and that if he could offer something then surely I could. And as much as I hate to admit it, the same holds true for when I was in Africa. I thought I had to offer the Ugandans something simply because they offered me something, simply because I was the one who was supposed to be coming to help them, not vice versa. That is one spade I absolutely do not want to call a spade.
And while I might have been able to produce some stickers and pencils for the kids in Africa as if I were Mother Teresa, I had nothing to offer Michael, save a few rolls of toilet paper that I honestly didn’t want to offer… so I didn’t. My toilet paper was Michael’s pot was the African children’s empty water bottles, it was all I had to offer, be it offensive or not, and I didn’t bother to offer it because it would put me out a roll or two. And I’m not saying Michael needed or wanted me to offer toilet paper, but I didn’t need or want him to offer me pot. It was the condition of our hearts, Michael the generous, JJ the greedy. A blind man would have certainly recognized Michael as the one who loves Jesus.
I kept my toilet paper and gave Michael my time… how kind of me. And while I say that sarcastically, I don’t mean to imply that giving time isn’t a good thing, it is, honestly, quality time is one of my love languages and I fully believe in it being a good gift. But I know when I’m giving my time out of love and giving my time out of pity, and when I give my time to someone I pity, it means I am functioning out of a place of thinking I am better than them.
I’ve had to bury my head in my hands multiple times while writing this out because the truth of it stings. I don’t want to beat myself up too badly because even with the best of intentions, so long as we are stuck in these earthly bodies I don’t think our motives can ever really be 100% pure. But I also don’t want to overdose on grace so I can excuse myself to continue living a life that allows me to think I am better than other people.
Perhaps this spade is a two fold, to reveal to you that I think I am better than other people and to reveal the truth to myself that I am not.
I hate everything about that sentence; in part because I don’t want to think I am better than other people, and in other part because I still want to be better than other people. I want to humbly be better than other people. Good Lord, what has two thumbs and is in desperate need of Jesus? This girl!
The truth is, while I’m sure Michael enjoyed my company, I can’t paint the picture of JJ the do-gooder. Even if Michael did need or want company, I needed and wanted company just as much, if not more. I don’t think Michael and I are all that different, we just have different circumstances and a different pair of shoes.
It’s funny how the Lord works when you surrender your plans. I share with Him what I’m thinking when I set about to write, and then I ask Him to have His way with me. I seem to always forget how nauseous that prayer makes me as it often results in me seeing the offensiveness of my humanity. My plan in writing this was to impress people, to offer some advice on how they can love people better and notice people more and make eye contact and all that stuff that really is important, but not the point, I don’t think, of this post.
I don’t even know if I know the point of this post anymore, other than to be drawn back to the conclusion once again that no matter how many revelations I have or how much growth and progress I make, I still need Jesus. I hope that is always the case, that I will always need Jesus, and I know it is always the case whether I acknowledge it or not, so I guess that is what I hope, that I will always be able to acknowledge that I need Jesus. And you know what that means… being able to say I need Jesus is going to look a lot like being able to say why I need Jesus, it’s going to look a lot like continually revealing my humanity, exposing the ugly but claiming the truth that there is hope!
The two go hand in hand, ugly and hope, and oh how grateful I am that those two things won’t be present the day I see my Savior face to face, for ugliness shall cease to exist and no hope will be needed as He who is all I’ve ever hoped for finally stands before me (I think He’ll stand, who knows, He might be more of a sitter).
I told Michael when I left that night that I would look for him whenever I walked on Hawthorne, which would be easy because it’s basically the street I live on. And I do, I look for Michael, even when I’m just going to the grocery store or going for a walk, I’m always on the lookout.
Michael seems to be quite good at hiding now that he knows he’s being looked for. I don’t know if Michael and I will hang out on Hawthorne again or not, he mentioned heading out to Boulder, Colorado, but I hope I see him again, I sincerely do… not because I think it would be good for him, not because I want another cigarette (I’m back to quitting), not because I want to offer him something, not because I want to prove a point or get a better story to tell with more resolve, but simply because I enjoyed his company. Michael might have thought all he had to offer was pot, but it was his time that he was kind enough to give me. I don’t know how often he has heard it, but as I left I told him I enjoyed him and I thanked him for letting me hang out with him, he told me not to thank him and he called me sister. My heart felt happy.
I have a wandering brother who looks nothing like me, and a loving Father who loves us both as a son and a daughter. I don’t know how well Michael knows our Father’s firstborn, Jesus, but I know Michael takes after Him, you can tell by his generous heart and his incredibly worn out shoes.