Yes, you, the one with the ginger hair and the freckles and the white, white skin beneath them, and the Marlboro Blacks (at least they are now honest about the color your lungs turn after smoking them) and your mom’s Oxycodone pills left over from her back surgery — the ones you think you are so fly to have snuck out of your apartment to cut in half and sell in Ranson.
I got to be a part of your journey today. Jesus put me in a time machine and let me talk to you when you are 62. You came to our church in Harpers Ferry and you worshipped with us at the 9 a.m. Eucharist service and then you asked for some food and said you would work to pay for it. You said you were a landscaper. So I listened to your story and said, “Deal. I will buy you $30 of food from my discretionary fund, and you plant the planters in front of the church with rudbeckia, salvia and petunias and clear the cracks between the bricks of Johnson grass.”
You told me some of your story. I can’t be sure of how much of it is true, because I found several things that didn’t match up in 20 minutes of listening, but here is the basic outline: You got sent to juvie when you were 16 for selling prescription drugs on the street in Sacramento. Things never went very well for you after that and that was not your fault. Everyone was unfair to you and never gave you a chance. You didn’t finish your GED because your girlfriend got pregnant (she did that all by herself, it seems) and you had to get a job with a landscaper to support her and the baby. You supplemented that income by selling meth and someone reported your lab and you got caught, so you went to prison, this time to Folsom where the big boys hang out. They weren’t very nice to you there. Skinny, cute boys don’t have a fun time in penitentiaries (Johnny Cash could have told you that).
When you got out you went back to work in landscaping, but now it was not so easy to find jobs, even down around Beverly Hills, because the “damned Mexicans” were getting all the jobs and they work hard, even in the rain, and they know what they are doing with palm trees. But eventually you found a job with a contractor who did building installations in Hollywood and Pasadena and you learned a lot about plants and you got really good at what you did and everyone wanted you on their crew because you had such a great eye for what looks good together and how to trim the edges of lawns so they look like green velvet carpets unrolling from the garden to the sidewalk.
So, most of the time, you had a job and you stayed in efficiency apartments around Gardena where you could gamble when you had a little money and you mostly managed to stay out of jail except when you had that girlfriend who was a heroin user and you were just helping her by selling a bit and you would shoot up occasionally yourself but you were never really an addict. You went to jail for three years that time.
When you got out you went back to Sacramento and lived under a bridge for a while, until you reconnected with your sister, who is a nurse and who also is raising your son, because your girlfriend overdosed a while back. She gave you money to stay away from your kid, so you had a bit to mess around with and you didn’t work that much and by this time you had pretty bad chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But the throat cancer was what was really bad and the surgery took away a lot of your throat and left you with a voice like an old wax cylinder recording.
Somehow or other you ended up in West Virginia. You’ve been living down by the Shenandoah in a tent and the whole scene there is pretty grim, a bunch of weirdos and winos and wanderers (your description) with no fixed abode — like you. So you hear that the priest at the church in Harpers Ferry helps out homeless people from time to time and you turn up this morning at the door of our church.
So, listen kid, I know the guy who showed up at the church in Harpers Ferry wasn’t actually you, visiting from the future. I know it was a different person who came seeking help and he is so sick that he can’t even do the work he said he wanted to do. I ended up planting the planters and refilling the trench he dug by mistake around the planter, because he didn’t understand my pretty basic instructions. As I worked, though, I couldn’t help thinking how much he looked like you, minus your teeth and plus 45 years and a lot of time in the sun (several skin cancers) and sleeping rough—that toughened up skin that homeless people have, with the added decorations of the heart surgery scar that runs up above the opening of his shirt and the black spots on his arms that used to be tattoos. Now they are just clumps of ink, all run together under his skin.
So here’s a tip: finish high school. Get a job. Lay off the drugs, the smokes and the booze. You probably won’t do this, even if you should choose to do something so incredibly droll as reading a column in a newspaper. But I just had to tell you — today, I saw a fragment of the future and it had your name on it. The only way to change it is now in the present moment. I wish you well. I pray you will find a way. I pray your journey will be different than what it looks like it will be from the perspective of a churchyard in Harpers Ferry where an old man came asking for food and work. He never thought his life would turn out the way it has. It’s been a long, hard pilgrimage.
— The Rev. Georgia C. DuBose is a priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry, and St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Leetown. She is a member of the board of the Jefferson County Homeless Coalition