As I had stated in my previous post about passing train cars, I had hoped to turn this into a recurring theme of this blog. This particular story was sparked by a drive down 144th St. near W. Center. There was a man standing on the sidewalk with a pack fit for a mountain hike, a grizzly white beard and a sign in his hand that said, “Anything helps”. I am very cynical about people like that when I shouldn’t be. I didn’t give him any money, but someone two cars behind me did. He ran into the street to the left turn lane and took their donation then returned to his spot back on the sidewalk giving the peace sign and he even took his hat off to them in thanks. I wanted to call him over to my car because I had cash in my pocket to give, but something kept me from doing so. It brought back a story of a dealing with a person begging on the street with my best friend and brother, AJ.
The day was June 16th, 2007. I remember the date all too well because it was the Metal at the Mall show that was to be the last show for Dead of Dawn, my old band. We were ending a 3 year stint together that day and I remember it well. It was hot and gross and I was dressed in all black. We played the show at the Gene Leahy Mall in downtown Omaha on top of a concrete stage area. I poured my heart out to maybe 20 people, some of them I’d seen at shows before. I was depressed, of course, because the band was breaking up and I didn’t know why. I still don’t know why. I was bitter and pissed off and thinking about myself more than anything during that show.
My best friend whom I call a brother, AJ was there with me. He rode down there with me, helped me with my equipment and wandered around the Old Market with me after we were done playing our set. I was burned out and sweaty but didn’t or couldn’t go home yet. I can’t remember which. I just remember how hot the sun was that day and how bummed I was about everything. AJ and I wandered into record shops and talked about things. I can never remember what we talk about but I always know we laugh and that was what I think I needed at that point.
We had walked a few blocks and had turned left on Harney at about 13th. It was then that we passed a man with a hat with some change in it. He cut right to the point and said, “I don’t want pity. I don’t want to tell you my life story. I’m homeless and I was wondering if you could spare something for me.” The man was average build, black man with grey coming into his beard and hair. When he spoke I could see he was missing some teeth, so you could hear the force of his voice passing through those gaps when he talked. I liked how direct he was and apparently AJ did too, so he dropped what little change he had into the hat. I put in a couple of dollar bills. For this he seemed to be genuinely thankful. It’s been a couple of years so it’s hard to remember all the details of this exchange but I would like to think he smiled just a bit which brings sadness to my heart.
Let me take this opportunity that I have some resistance to just giving money to the poor. You don’t know what that money is going to go to whether it be booze, drugs, what have you. But I feel like such a heel passing them by and ignoring them like everyone else does. But anyways, I digress…
He seemed to think a minute and said, “I’m going to tell you a story…” In my head, I remember thinking that he had just told us he wasn’t going to do that but I remained silent. “My name is Jimi X. That’s J-I-M-I and the letter X.” My mind [and probably AJ’s too] went straight to Jimi Hendrix and Malcolm X. That may come off as racist or something like that, but it wasn’t. This man could have been albino and I would have thought the same thing. The mind is a wonderful thing. Anyways, he began to unfold this wonderful story of which I can only remember as a general. I’m thinking right now of how I wish I had something to record it with because it was beautiful in a very, very broken sense. He told us that he has a mixed heritage, that his great-grandmother Native American and his grandmother was white. Essentially, it broke down that his family tree and heritage was so mixed up and messed up that he wanted nothing from either side of his family and adopted the last name of X. It wasn’t that he was trying to make a profound statement of society, he just generally despised his own bloodline that much. I remember not moving while he spoke, as if the entire world folded in and collapsed around us for those few minutes while he told us this story.
After discussing with us his family issues, he told us about a possible job opportunity. I’ll pull the direct quote from a piece I wrote about it around 10:30 PM that night:
A man came by here and offered me a job today, told me if I cleaned myself up, stopped drinking, quit smoking crack… Quit the rocket fueling, y’know? That he would make sure I stayed fucking clean and that he’d give me a job.
AJ and I both affirmed that this was a good thing and that we hoped he did get clean and get that job. He continued to talk, this time saying that he had 5 kids. I have since forgotten all the names but one:
James Jr. He’s only a year and a half. I want to clean myself up, but what am I going to do, man? I’m 48 years old. I’m getting old. They aren’t going to want to do anything with me.
My heart was definitely broken for this man and I felt bad. I believed him, he had gotten past my cynicism and skepticism and gotten to the very core of me. If this man was a liar, he was a very good liar. I didn’t know what to do once he had finished talking. I probably looked ridiculous in my sweat-stained clothes, wide eyes and probably a slightly agape mouth. AJ picked up the slack for me and asked if we could pray for him. I remember him saying it was okay, that he was into spiritual stuff and that he knew how old he was going to be when he died. He said his lifeline told him he would live to be 96 years old. In my heart I hoped that he was right so that he could maybe right some of the wrongs he did to his family, friends and himself.
So, we all joined hands and AJ prayed for Jimi. We said our goodbyes to him and started walking down Harney when AJ stopped, turned and ran into a door we had just passed, saying he had an idea. I waited outside a couple of minutes and realized he had run into a restaurant. After a while, I got impatient and wanted to get inside to the air conditioning. AJ had ordered a personal pizza and a cup of water. He explained to me that this was a tactic he had picked up from his dad, that you gave food to them because, unlike money, they can’t use it to get things that could be harmful to them or help further any sort of addiction. Jimi was thankful and, with that, we back down Harney towards my car with the June sun pounding on our backs.
My aversion to homeless and begging people has not died, I discovered. I saw a man today around 144th and Center with a sign that said, “Anything helps”. I remembered, though, what I had picked up from AJ. I thought about buying the man some food because there was a plethora of food joints in that general area. But then I realized the left-turn arrow had turned green and I drove on. Someone was nice enough to give him something a couple cars behind me. Thinking about it now, I wish I had given him something. I don’t know him or his heart, but if I learned anything from my experience with Jimi it’s that God knows a person’s heart and it is up to Him to judge. If I give him money and he uses it for alcohol or drugs then it is between him and God and not my business.
It is amazing what the memory will contain. I don’t know how I recall a lot of the stories I have nor do I want to. What is important to me is that I am able to share them and that they might be of use to someone. With Jimi I learned that my version of broken is a lot different from other peoples’. That we can love someone without any sort of return or exchange. I don’t think I will ever forget those moments I stood rooted on concrete listening to this man bear his hear to us. I was actually down in that are again about a week later and, as I passed 13th & Harney, I looked to see if he was still there. I smiled when I saw that the spot he had been sitting was vacated. I hoped that he got that job, that he got clean and that he went back to his kids, his family and got things straightened out, that our prayer for Jimi on the corner of 13th & Harney in the blaring heat of June had been answered.