The following story is true. Although it took place in the early months of 2001, I still dwell on it from time to time. While my personal view of neighboring and loving others has been shaped by many relationships and events through the years, none has had as great of an impact as the events recounted here.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a song by Jon Guerra called "The Kingdom of God." It reminded me of the events in this story, which prompted me to reflect back upon them nearly twenty years later. I would encourage you to give it a listen before or after reading the following.
“There's a homeless guy in your parking lot.” Looking up from my work, I acknowledged the newcomer with a puzzled look on my face. He lifted his thumb, gesturing in the opposite direction. “Outside. Just thought I'd let you know.”
I'd been warned about a number of things before accepting my recent promotion, but Homeless Guy Duty wasn't one of them. “Thanks,” I answered, feeling anything but gratitude for the unusual predicament.
Pausing in my work, I left the checkout counter and made for the floor-to-ceiling windows facing outward to the parking lot. It looked empty to me. Scanning the store for the customer who had just entered, I wondered if he was pulling some kind of prank on me, the new Assistant Manager of his local video rental store. Losing him behind a shelf, I decided not to worry about it anymore.
The front door opened again, but this time the sound of cursing entered with the latest customer. He met my eyes, shook his head, and finished the colorful tirade with, “Some people!”
“Someone outside?” I asked.
“Just a homeless bum harassing me.” Following the same path as the last customer, he walked straight to the wall of new releases. I sighed, wondering why Homeless Guy Duty had fallen into my lap, of all people. Confrontations were not my cup of tea.
I finished scanning a pile of returns - aka, “delaying the inevitable” - then cautiously walked to the door. Cracking it open just a smidge, I watched as a new car slowly pulled into the parking lot. As it turned into an empty space, a human shadow slid across the ground from behind a thick pillar nestled between two massive windows. It was a great spot for someone trying to hide from clueless employees inside of the store.
The door of the car opened and a man stepped out.
“Excuse me, sir, would you like me to wash your car while you're inside?” the shadow spoke.
Instead of cursing, the new customer simply ignored the question. Stepping out of his way, I held the door open and let it gently close without a sound.
It was then that he saw me. I could tell from the panic in his eyes. “I'm sorry, sir. I'll be leaving now.” Bending over, he lifted a box to his chest and began to shuffle away.
Turning his face, I only saw him in profile. He was tense and looked like he would dart at any moment, so I took in his appearance while I had a chance. He wore a hat - bright red in the distant past, now faded to an ugly shade of pink - and a tight denim jacket smeared with oil and mud. An awkward silence followed, but slowly he turned his head a little more. Eventually, our eyes met.
Opening my mouth, I chose to break the silence first. “Mine is the red truck. You can wash that one. I’ll be working inside, so take your time.”
Following him outside, I walked around my sparkling clean truck and admired his work. “Looks great. How much do I owe you?” He shrugged, noncommittal. Pulling out my wallet, I asked, “Ten bucks okay?”
“Anything helps.” Reaching for the bill, his dirty, calloused hands smeared a brand new color across the money.
Unhappy with my contribution, I went back inside to look for something he might like. There were candy, sweets, and unpopped popcorn, but none of those seemed fitting. Stopping at a freezer beside the colorful shelf of candy, I finally perked up. “Do you like ice cream?”
Opening the freezer, I pulled out my favorite one. “I'm Robert,” I said, handing him a chocolate-covered cone with peanuts on top. He removed the paper from the cone and threw it in a trash can.
“Thank you, Robert. My name is John.”
“Morning, Robert.” He stood in the doorway holding a box under his arm.
“Mind if I use your restroom?”
“Of course not.”
Setting the box on the countertop, he walked to the back of the store and disappeared. I couldn’t help it- my eyes dropped to the box he'd left behind. Inside it were rags, bottles, soap, and leftovers from McDonald's.
“Thank you, sir,” he said a couple of minutes later when he returned for his belongings. “Been a long day.”
“Hopefully a good one, though.”
Smiling, John made for the door. “Any day the cops aren't called is a good day!”
He disappeared around the corner. Just a guy and his box.
I showed up the following day for a rare evening shift and my boss waved me over right away. He looked irritated. “What's going on?” I asked.
“There was a homeless guy looking for you today. What's that all about?”
I clocked in, laughing nervously, and wondered how to proceed from there. “I don't know. He's been by twice this week.”
“He asked for you by name." I winced as my boss starred daggers into my soul. “Why does he know your name?”
“Well,” I began, trying to decipher the story for myself, “I let him wash my car a couple of days ago. I was just trying to help him out.”
The glare never left my face. “I don't want him around here. Understand? People don’t like him. I told him not to come back, so if he does…call the cops."
“Yeah,” was all I could muster as my heart sunk into the pit of my stomach. Why did his words stab me so? I didn’t really even know the guy.
I spent the rest of that shift glancing cautiously outdoors and listening as customers came indoors. Wondering if any of my coworkers were privy to the conversation, I hoped that none would have the nerve to call the cops. I stopped myself right then. Why was I so concerned? John was just a guy I’d met by chance and I couldn't imagine him actually showing up again. He'd already been warned by my boss. Conflicted, I went back to work…but not before taking another quick look outside.
At midnight I locked the doors and divided all closing duties between the three of us who remained. “Take the drawers to the office and count the cash,” I told one coworker. To the other, I added, “If you can mop up, I'll take out the trash.”
Grabbing two bags of garbage, I unlocked the front door and headed around the corner. The dumpster was around back, so I made a sharp left turn while shivering in the cold night air. Reaching the dumpster, I swung the first bag and then the second through the small side hole just big enough for a pair of flying trash bags.
The ground was sticky and my shoes pulled audibly on the concrete, as if the surface had been laid with foul-smelling glue. I turned to leave. Looking down, something unusual caught my eye. It was dark but I could see it standing up from the ground. No, not one thing. Many things. Leaning close to the ground, I squinted my eyes. The scene before me was baffling. Small items littered the ground beside and behind the dumpster; trinkets and everyday items so normal they were grossly out of place. As if that weren’t weird enough, each item was tied with a string and decorated with a white price tag. Reaching for one, I flinched and nearly jumped out of my skin when a dark figure suddenly appeared from behind the dumpster.
“It's just me,” he whispered. “John.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked. My heart was a freight train pounding a million miles per minute.
“I set up a shop. I hope you don't mind.”
Looking back at the ground, I knelt on my hands and knees. I was enchanted and equally disgusted. My fingers were sticky and smelled like rotten, sugary popcorn soda. Even so, I glanced up at the man still standing beside the dumpster in the darkness. “Can I look at them?”
He knelt in the grime beside me. “Sure.”
Eyes beginning to adjust to the midnight hour, I reached for item after item, carefully viewing each one. Turning them in my hands, I studied the carefully-printed prices listed on each tag. Most were worthless in the condition they were in, each one likely found in trash cans and dumpsters scattered across town. “Why did you bring them here? Who do you sell them to?”
John shrugged. Reaching for the tallest item - an olive green blender from decades long past - he picked it up and admired it for a moment in silence. Then, he turned his face toward mine. It was hard to distinguish any other feature but the whites of his eyes just inches from my own. “I want to give this to you…for being so kind to me.”
My soul was crushed. His words touched my heart, removed it, and placed it inside of his most expensive possession, that olive green blender. Unable to utter a word, I merely accepted the gift with a nod before waving goodnight.
Blender under my arm, I walked from darkness into light. I opened the door to the store and locked it in place behind me, pausing momentarily to regain my composure.
“What took you so long?” my coworker with the mop asked. Lowering her eyes to the blender, she couldn’t conceal the look of confusion that dawned across her face. “And where'd you get that?”
“From a friend.”
She looked at me like I was crazy.
Over the next month or so we did become friends. John was smart. He never stopped by whenever my boss was around. We talked about God, trains, jail, and a former life that included a job and a house. I saw him arrested once outside of a Burger King while on my way to work. I could spot that faded pink hat and jacket from a mile away- even from the back of a police car.
March arrived, and with it, the unbearable cold. One night, John showed up to the store just after midnight. Hobbling around on one crutch and shivering uncontrollably, he waited patiently for me to finish work. “Twisted my ankle today,” he explained as I pushed my way out the door. I dropped a couple of trash bags and locked the doors behind me, calling it a night.
“What can I do to help?”
“Well,” he said, “I have a friend who's saving a place for me to sleep tonight. I just don't know if I can make it there on one bad foot. Do you mind...?” He trailed off, apparently too embarrassed to ask for a ride.
Lifting the bags, I nodded. “Of course I'll give you a ride. Give me just one second and we’ll head off."
When I came back around the corner, I stopped dead in my tracks. “No, no, no,” I chided, watching as John tried to climb into the bed of my truck. “In the front.” He began to protest, but I’d have none of it. “How am I supposed to know where to drop you off?” He climbed down as carefully as he could, leaving just the crutch and his box in the back before joining me up front.
Heading out, I listened to and followed his handful of directions. Three right turns in all. Not too far, maybe a mile. Finally, he lifted a finger. “Right here,” he pointed. I pulled into the parking lot of a three story office building. ”Home sweet home."
Confused, I slowed my truck to a crawl while looking around the empty lot and deserted building. "Where exactly are we going?"
“Up here. Just a little further.” Motioning to the far side of the building, I kept driving but failed to see our destination. “Okay, right here.”
I stopped, but there was no house, hotel, or apartment that I could see.
Opening the door, John got out and grabbed his crutch and box from the back. I rolled the window down, still fighting a losing battle with my growing confusion. Sticking his head back near the window, he smiled and shut the door. "See you soon!"
A soft grating sound of sliding metal filled my ears. It was the small side door of a nearby dumpster, and it was slowly being pushed open from the inside.
“It's just me, buddy,” John called out, speaking directly to a head sticking out of the dumpster. He returned his attention back to me. “That's my friend, Tim. Been saving my spot all evening. Anyway...thanks again, Robert.”
My stomach turned to lead as I watched him hobble away on a bad leg and a single crutch. Jumping out of my truck, I watched in horror as he tossed the crutch and then his box into the dumpster. Placing one foot on the side of the ghastly metal box, John suddenly realized he couldn't pull himself up and into the hole with only one good leg. Unsure what to do or what to say, I simply asked, “How....how are you going to get inside?”
Looking back at me with a smile in his eyes, my friend must have found the situation amusing. He actually had the nerve to laugh. “Didn't think about that, did I?”
In a daze, I walked to the dumpster, cupped my fingers, and knelt in front of the side hole. Placing his good foot into my hands, John grabbed both sides of the opening. With a push, I lifted him into his home for the night. Sticking my head inside, I watched him maneuver a long piece of cardboard around the interior. Positioning himself just right, he placed the cardboard above him like a blanket, the bags of rubbish his mattress. Finally, he adjusted a pillow of trash beneath his head.
“Thanks again, buddy,” he said, looking as comfortable as I had ever seen him in the months since I had known him. His friend Tim slid the tiny doorway shut and I heard John’s final goodbye: “Have a good night, Robert.”
Heartbroken, I whispered under my breath, “You too, John.” My breath ascended in the cold night air, disappearing in the haunting light of street lamps.
Opening my hands, I graciously accepted the keys to my new store. “Good luck,” my District Manager said in farewell as I pulled the front door closed behind him. I stood at the floor-to-ceiling window and watched him drive away. Slowly, I turned back to my brand new store. My store. I was still in shock at how fast everything had happened.
It was 8:30am on a Monday morning, just two days after I had dropped John off at the dumpster. I learned about my unexpected promotion the evening before. I was excited, of course, but struggling with one important detail:
I never got to say goodbye.
I took a step further into my new store. Would someone tell him where I was? Would he assume that I had abandoned him? Would he find me and come to visit me? Even once? I desperately wanted to at least say goodbye. To tell him thank you. I didn't even know what for- I just knew that I was grateful for him. For how much I had changed because of him.
Eventually, I faced the truth: John was homeless and I was fifteen miles away. No one would give him the courtesy of telling him where I went. Besides, he would never venture inside of my old store if I wasn’t in sight. Even still, I waited. I wished and I hoped. I desperately prayed. Every time I looked at the ice cream freezer, I thought about him. I thought about how good it would feel if he ever walked through the door for another first time. I would shake his hand and buy him an ice cream cone. Just like that other first time.
How I wish he had walked through that door. Sadly, he never did.
A few months later, I was transferred to another location even further away. In time, my hope faded like a dream at daybreak. When they began closing stores about a year later, I felt as though a sacred part of me had died. Eventually I moved on. That’s what humans do, right?
One day, while feeling nostalgic, I drove to the old store where I had been transferred. It had become a walk-in clinic. Then I drove to the location where I'd met John. It was in even worse shape. The building was all boarded up, an insignificant memory on a rundown road that no one cared about anymore. Seeing as how it was abandoned, I drove around back and got out of my car. I looked around and behind the dumpster. Nothing. I was hoping for at least a stray price tag or something to take as a reminder of the past.
Depressed, I pulled into an Auto Zone across the street. It was as good of a place as any to buy a pair of windshield wipers for my new car. Hopping back in the car, I set the bag on the passenger seat beside me and adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see my old store and the dumpster behind it. I wondered where he was. Hoped that he was alright. Safe. Staying warm at night.
I closed my eyes to pray for him before turning the key and rolling down the windows.
Just then, a head appeared in my passenger side window. “Need a car wa-“
I nearly jumped out of my skin when a faded pink hat and dirty jacket filled my vision. Relief overwhelmed me as my voice caught in my throat. I thought I would cry, but that was okay.
Because he felt the very same way.
“It’s so good to see you, John. How have you been?”
“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”
- Luke 6:20