I have a confession to make. I am terrible at being a Christian.
On Thursday I went to Barnes and Noble. I bought a map to help chart my course for Mad Across America. I purchased one of those outrageously giant wall maps I could write on and put tacks in and draw tiny little pictures of tanks on, pretending I am in the middle of the Civil War.
And good thing I bought that map before hitting the road. If there’s anything I’ve learned from planning this trip, it’s that there are a lot of states in America. 50 of them, it turns out. And the states are big. Who knew? I may be on the road longer than anticipated.
Pleased with my purchase, and ready to draw lines and circles all over the USA, I walked around to the back parking lot. I caught sight of an older, black gentleman headed right for me. When someone is headed right for you in LA it means only one thing: they need something from you. Your wallet. Your car. Your signature. Your spare change. Paying close attention to his age, I determined he was either going to ask for money or a hip replacement, and I’m no doctor.
I couldn’t quite tell if he was homeless, or if he’d simply misplaced his iron that morning and gotten dressed in the dark. He moved like his legs had been carved out of wood. As an automatic defensive response, I first tried the old Put-The-Phone-To-Your-Ear-And-Start-Talking-To-Yourself trick like I was on an important conference call with some guys in Japan, about to close the deal, and I couldn’t be bothered. And, really, I couldn’t. I had a map to hang.
I did, however, instinctively reach into my pockets to fish for a dollar bill. I immediately felt guilty for the fake phone idea (because what if this guy had a real problem here?), and decided to compensate for it by paying him off quickly with a spare dollar.
In a cool cigarette voice that hummed out of his throat the way a suspended jazz line drums out of speakers in a dim lit bar, he said to me, “Can you spare a brother a quarter?” Somebody needed to hand the guy a trumpet and a snare.
I looked down at my hand. I’d pulled out seven.
Dollars. Not quarters.
I smiled, slapped the money into his palm. I said: Go buy yourself lunch.
His hesitation, the look in his eyes, told me this was the most money anyone had ever given him.
“God bless you,” he stammered. “Thank you. You’re wonderful.”
I took a step in the opposite direction.
“What’s your name?” he asked. He took my hand in his, giving me the kind of shake with two hands you deliver at a wake.
“You’re mad aren’t you? Like Mad Max. Beyond Thunderdome.”
For once, God, it would be great if You could talk to me through something like a burning bush, or perhaps a magical rainbow-spewing unicorn with a horn made of gold that tells ironic jokes about horses. You know, so I’d know it’s You. I mean, if we’re going to keep this up as I cross the country with this blog, I can’t go around giving dollar bills to every stranger I meet in hopes of hearing from You. We’re going to need to come up with a better system because I don’t always carry that much cash in my pockets. Maybe you could start taking debit?
Allow me, for a moment, to take you on a journey: a brief history of Max. My parents, Ron and Sally, didn’t always have the name Max in mind. They had a few other winners they’d been kicking around like Andrew, John, Elton, John Elton, standard kid names. (Thank goodness they didn’t choose John Elton. That would have been a catastrophe. Not that there was anyone famous with the same name, but this blog would have been called Make It JED. That wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy.) Around 8 months into the whole growing-another-human-being-inside-of-you thing, my mother sat down to watch Mel Gibson play the role that made him famous in Australia. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. The third and final installment in the post-apoctolyptic Mad Max trilogy. And it hits her: Max. We’re going to name him Max.
Done. Sign the paperwork. Copyright that and start the blog.
Fast forward to last Thursday, and this old-timer and me, we were still shaking hands when he told me his name was Calvin. “Calvin and Max,” he said.
Calvin and Max, I repeated.
“Someone should write about us.”
I have a feeling someone is going to, Calvin. Listen, Calvin, are you homeless?
“Been homeless now for a few years.”
Where do you sleep at night?
“Came into a few extra bucks so I’m sleeping on the floor of a studio apartment until Friday with five or six other people. Money’s all dried up again after that.”
Are you here every day, Calvin?
“Every day. These people here, they let me walk up and down these shops here. Everyone knows me around here. I don’t cause no trouble.”
I glanced around, looking for anyone who might be watching us, watching him, because I started to grow uneasy about whether or not this was really happening given my track record with street prophets.
What do you need, Calvin?
“Need? Clothes, brother Max. I need clothes.”
I happened to have a bag of clothes stashed in the closet of the last place I was crashing.
I asked Calvin if he was going to be there tomorrow.
I really had to get home and get that map on my wall.
“I’m here every day, Mad Max.”
Look, Calvin, I’ve got an entire bag full of clothes. Let me bring them to you tomorrow?
“My God,” Calvin shook. “God Bless you, my brother.” He took two steps too close and hugged me. I was defenseless. Now, allow me to say that I don’t like being touched. Particularly by strangers. It takes me months just to get comfortable hugging my closest friends. And I let this homeless man, a complete stranger, hug me.
It was wonderful.
He smelled of stale cigarettes and department store cologne samples. His beard scratched my face and made me itch. When Calvin broke the embrace, he asked what time I would be there tomorrow. We agreed on twelve noon. He walked me over to a dumpster behind a five-foot concrete wall, and instructed me to leave the clothes behind the dumpster if he happened to not be there.
I said: Calvin, don’t lie to me, do you live here?
“No, this is just where I feed the cat.”
As if the darn thing knew we were talking about it, a tiny black kitten emerged from the dumpster, meowing incessantly as Calvin and I peered over the wall.
I asked: What’s the cats name?
Calvin shrugged. “I usually just call it, Cat.” He put his hands over the wall and whistled. “Here cat, cat, cat, kitty, cat, cat.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
Listen, Calvin, I’ll be back tomorrow at noon, all right?
That map wasn’t going to hang itself.
And Calvin, he takes my hand again. I believe he is going to shake it, but he does something else entirely. He bows his head, kisses the back of my hand, and begins to pray. For me. He prays for me. For blessing and favor and all the riches in the world.
Calvin. A homeless man treading the streets of Los Angeles. Caring for a tiny cat behind a dumpster, and begging for quarters so he can eat a proper meal. Calvin. Prays. For. Me. I had a place to go home to that night. I had a car to drive that afternoon. I was going out to have a lunch I could afford. And Calvin asks God to bless me?
I left feeling wrecked and depleted, shaken to my very core about my place in this world, yet I was so full of life.
Do you get it? Calvin was representing what it meant to follow Christ better than I could ever do it. Better than any of us are doing it. You see, Jesus was poor. Jesus was born in a barn on the outskirts of society. Jesus was homeless. He worked a common job; couldn’t afford his taxes. Jesus lived with the outcasts, the whores, the widows, the orphans, the criminals, the drunkards, and the lost. He was a friend to sinners and the oppressed.
Yet Jesus still healed the sick, prayed for the broken, and befriended the lonely. He met their needs even though he had needs himself.
Calvin prayed for me. Asked that God would provide for me, not him.
An ultimate act of selflessness. I have a roof over my head right now and I eat three meals a day, and what am I praying for?
More. When I really need less. We could all use a little less. Christ says to give up everything and follow him. Yet we’re all just looking for the next thing to buy.
It doesn’t sound comfortable, but nobody said it was going to be easy.
I went home, hung up my map.
I showed up the next day, right on time, with a brand new wardrobe for Calvin. Only Calvin was nowhere to be seen. He warned me this might happen, but I still hung around hoping to catch him.
But he never showed.
So I climbed the concrete wall, and landed hard on the other side. I stood to regain my composure, brush myself off. I set the clothes behind the dumpster as instructed. On my way back over, I stalled. I was surrounded by four walls. Two of them belonged to CVS and Urban Outfitters–suitable for scaling only if you’ve recently been bitten by a radioactive spider. The third was a chain link fence with a locked gate. The forth was the wall I’d just climbed. I turned an entire 360 degrees before jumping back over.
I don’t want to discredit anyone’s capabilities, but I recalled Calvin’s wooden walk from the day before. There was no way in hell he was able to get over that wall.
I have no idea where those clothes are now or if Calvin ever got them. Regardless, something tells me he doesn’t need them anyway.
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