Roger Barbee: How many modern sojourners are in our midst?
As I write this column, the sunlight is peeking over Short Mountain, reaching into the taller trees and even across the valley to Great North Mountain.
While the night, like most of them at this time of the year, was cool, the sun’s warmth will soon heat the air and land. Flowers are blooming, grass needs mowing (again!), the greening of trees creeps up to the ridge of our mountains, and, as the poet wrote, “in Just-/spring when the world is mud-/luscious”, it is a joyous time, especially after the winter we have all just experienced. With all the re-birth around us, it is difficult to think of them now during this season of warmth, green, and the promise of plenty. But, they are still out there. The sojourners, or as we now call them, the homeless. Those without homes and identities.
A few day ago, Mary Ann and I went shopping in Harrisburg to buy me some shirts. We went to a store in a mall located on Rt. 33 East and made our purchases. Going to the car, we chatted about where we would eat lunch — after all, it was a big trip for us to the city, and we wanted to take advantage of what it offered.
As we were getting into the van, we saw him sitting under a bull pine located in a swatch of grass between the large parking lot and major road. He sat surrounded by three or four bags overflowing with his processions. In the car by now, we watched him stand with the aid of a crutch and begin to gather his belongings. Mary Ann asked if I had any small bills, and she gathered some for him. I watched her as she walked across the parking lot to give him the few bills in her hand.
Driving over in order to be closer, I watched him as he began talking with my wife. As you might surmise, his clothes were filthy, his long hair and beard unkempt and dirty, and his right leg was wrapped in a bandage from the ankle to his upper calf. His name, he told Mary Ann, was David and he was 55 years old.
Nearby I watched as he talked with her. I could not hear much of what he said, but at one point he paused, looked toward me, and called out, “Hello, Roger.”
Leaning on the crutch, he talked and talked while Mary Ann listened. He was, I found out later, telling her much of his history. He shared how he grew up in a large family, how he knew Woodstock and our area — he even named a local Baptist church that he had visited and which had given him aid.
As I sat and watched, I grew impatient — after all, it was time for lunch. He then leaned over and retrieved some papers from a plastic bag. He shoved them into Mary Ann’s hands and told her to read them. She took them, glanced at them, and returned them. Then, his manner turned, and he became belligerent. The soft, mild voice was now louder and angry. Mary Ann stepped back, and told him we had to leave. He stuffed the papers back into the bag, and said, “Bless you, if you understand that.” As we drove away, David was gathering bags to go somewhere, perhaps for his lunch.
On our way for lunch, Mary Ann shared with me how David had been articulate, soft spoken, and aware. He talked, and she listened. However, when he began telling her about his leg being injured, she told me she sensed his change in manner, and decided to leave. What had been a long conversation, which was OK, now was getting somewhat dicey. And, when he saw that she did not read the hospital reports of his injury, he became agitated. While never feeling threatened, Mary Ann knew that she could, at that time, do no more and returned to the car.
During this morning of sunshine and promise, I wonder where David spent last night. I wonder if he had anyone to talk with yesterday. I wonder if he is as mentally ill as I suspect, or just like us all who can get angry when we feel ignored or trivialized. I wonder how many “Davids” there are in our midst.
What I do not wonder about is that our society likes to make the “Davids” a number, reducing them to a statistic. In this way, we place all the “Davids” in a place that is comfortable for us, but not good for them. I do not wonder that hunger, loneliness, and homelessness is a year-long state, not just one during cold, winter nights.
We are commanded to love, but it is so difficult when “they” are dirty, smelly, and at times irrational. It’s so much easier to love the ones who look and act like me.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This is Roger Barbee’s final guest column for the Northern Virginia Daily.