When the rain let up and the sun went down, it started to get cold out. The soggy skies had kept it somewhat milder and sleeping out in the park was OK. Not great, but OK, as long as one could find shelter from the deluge. True cold was another matter though and I needed to find either a warmer spot or more blankets, or both.
The dog and I walked out into the streets. Our first goal was something to eat. I was no good at begging but the dog’s big sad eyes and sweet if cautious demeanor set him apart from many of the tougher, more threatening sort. I could sit out on a busy sidewalk with my hat upturned in front of me and collect a few dollars in an hour or two, so that’s what we did. I said “thank you” every time somebody tossed something in, but I didn’t look at people expectantly as that seemed to be more of a guilt-tripping thing, and actually produced less coins.
Tonight, being a holiday, there were less pedestrians out but those who passed were often more generous. By the time an hour or so had passed I was starting to shiver and Pup was getting restless. I picked up the hat and there was $5.73 in there, not quite minimum wage, but plenty for now. Getting up, dusting off my pants, we headed for the corner store. Two cans of dog food, one for now and one for morning, $2.15. Two bananas, one for now and one for morning, $1.20. One cup of yogurt, $1.40. One granola bar, $1.00. That about did it. The clerk just nodded at me and turned back to his TV set and I stuffed the grub into my bag and headed out, where the dog was tied and waiting eagerly, more aware of what time it was more than I: Dinnertime.
The next decision was where to seek the night’s shelter. The park was still there of course but lately it felt more damp and unwelcoming than usual. I knew a few other spots though, in semi-remote urban cubbyholes under the cover of overhangs, garages, and so forth. My one good blanket wasn’t as efficient on concrete or wood but it still beat being damp.
But first, dinner. Down the street I found a bench, plunked down, motioned for Pup to jump up and join me on it, off the cold sidewalk, and went to work on his can with my battered Swiss Army Knife. He watched my every move intently. I liked to just give him the opened can, as it gave him sport to work his way through it himself. While he was gnawing into that, I ate my banana, yogurt, and crunchy bar, musing that most of my meals felt like breakfast and were pretty healthy, if not large. Losing weight is supposed to be good for us though.
One we were both done, I took the licked-clean can and poured some water into it from my bottle and swirled it around, so Pup could lick every last morsel out while having a post-dinner drink. I briefly thought of how good a drink of my own might be, a beer or even glass of wine, but that was out of the question. A coffee in the morning was a luxury enough, once I had the the first cash of the day in hand.
It was probably only about 7PM now and really too soon to turn in but that nightly dilemma was here: What to do with oneself? Being down on the ground, trying to sleep, for like twelve hours a day was just too much. But where to go? I pondered that I’d had perhaps twenty words with other humans today, mostly “thanks.” My fellow street denizens were rarely folks I wanted to interact with much. I no longer knew what it was like to not be lonely, so like a fish in water, that had come to feel normal, if not good. My life consisted of walking, begging, reading, sleeping, and feeding myself and Pup. As all but the last seemed a sort of treading water to no real end, I again had the brief flash of realization that if and when Pup was gone, there was really no reason to carry on with the rest. My mind briefly thought of some people from my past, especially the women who had loved me at some point, but I caught that and shook it off, knowing the past is past and they did not miss me now and wouldn’t again in any event. So be it. Shaking that off too, I got us up and walked on, vaguely heading to a relatively safe and dry place I’d slept in before, hoping nobody else had already claimed it. A few blocks down, I heard group singing. Walking a bit further, I saw it was coming from a small church.
I’ve never spent any real time in churches, other than ceremonies like weddings or funerals. And though some offered shelter and meals to folks like me, I felt guilty availing myself or their charity, being of little – OK, no – faith. But this was a special day, I had no other plans, and it looked and sounded warm in there, so I strolled the few step up to the doorway, stepped into the first little room inside, noted there was nobody there and nobody could see me, so I motioned Pup to sit down in the corner, handed him a small biscuit from my coat pocket, and left him there munching, expecting to just check out the inside for a moment or two. Inside, it was a standard, non-fancy but nice enough church room, nicely lit up by both electricity and candles. It was about half full with people, sitting in rows and singing from the books in their hands. They were pretty good at it too and the sound from some song I did not recognize swelled and filled the air inside. I stepped forward to the last row and sat down to listen, and not incidentally to warm up a bit before facing the long night ahead.
One song ended, and another started up without a real break. “Oh come all ye faithful..” they began. Aha, I know this one, or some of it, I thought. It’s one of the better carols, or so I felt. Joyful and triumphant, it advised, regarding the newborn boy it celebrated. I just didn’t know. The song brought up memories of youth, but not much else. Still, I liked hearing them sing it. It was soothing. And so, of course, I fell asleep, sitting up.
“Sir”, came the voice, with a gentle nudge. “Wake up, sir,” he said. He was a big guy with a kind enough look. “It’s time to go, and you have to take your dog out with you.” Well, duh, I thought. As if I would leave him. “Thank you,” I simply said, and got up to go.
“Here, please take this,” said the man, handing me a small booklet. Not wanting to displease him, I took it, and walked out to where Pup was sitting, looking worried as he had been awoken too. “Good night” the man said, closing the big wooden doors behind us, and I nodded and walked down and onto the sidewalk. It was noticeably colder out and I checked my old watch and saw it was after 9PM, so I must have slept at least an hour in there. Nice of them to let me, I thought, although it would have been nicer to let me stay the night. We headed down towards the college, where some of the sleeping spots could be found, if one was not too obvious about it. Around the back of the library was a small courtyard with many plants and even some pine trees. I’d found that putting a thick layer of pine needles down, under my blanket, with Pup nestled next to me and my bag under my head as a pillow, was pretty good, about as good as it got.
There was one little shaft of light that came down from the building through the branches so I could even read if I wanted to. I had a couple of magazines I’d found, a book, and today’s papers, so I was set, as usual. But the first thing I found was the little booklet the church keeper had pressed upon me, so I looked at that.
“The REAL Bible”, it was titled. A somewhat pompous title, I thought, especially as it was only about twenty small pages long. I tuned the cover and the Introduction, one one page, simply said “These are the words of Jesus Christ, from the Holy Bible. The rest of the Bible, thought well worth your time, was all added on after his lifetime. For the truth, you really need read no further. So please do so now. God bless you.”
Well that’s straightforward enough, I thought. I know not from the Bible, and could maybe name only half of the Ten Commandments, for that matter (although I’d probably violated all of them at some point). Did Jesus say “Bless the beasts and children?” I wasn’t sure, but I agreed with that much. Maybe that was Saint Francis, the guy my adopted home city was named for? I read on, and such words as these, some familiar, some not, were there:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
“Judge not, that you be not judged.”
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Hmm. I let the booklet drop to my chest and closed my eyes. Man, I thought. There was no way around it: Jesus was the first hippie. Or at least, the first Western was, as there were probably wandering monks and such before him, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever, around the world. And of course they tortured and killed him, of course in the name of faith and protecting the children. His words certainly didn’t seem to guide too many of the self-proclaimed religious folks I’d met, but then, again, he said to judge not. I vowed to spend some time at the library, where I and others like me went anyway to warm up, dry out, clean up, nap in peace, use computers, and most important, use the bathrooms, to learn more about him and his time. Yes, some of us even read there sometimes. I wouldn’t be able to do that tomorrow, as in fact it would be his birthday, but the day after, perhaps.
Pup stirred and whined a little. I looked around, up into the light from the building, and saw a strange sight – masses of little lights coming down and landing on the bench, the branches, the ground. Pulling my arm out of the blanket, I held out a bare hand: Snow. How rare and strange. And good, actually, as it might mean that the air would warm up a bit again. It seemed to worry Pup, though. I reached under my head into my bag and found the other banana. He sat up and stared as soon as I popped the little stem off, a sound he knew. The strange big dog, who was a giant baby but kept me safe just by virtue of his size, just loved bananas. I broke off pieces for him, eating one, giving him the other four. Bless the beasts indeed, whomever said it.
It would still be a cold morning, and likely another damp day. Christmas day. I motioned Pup to lie back down, on his side, and he did, and I scruntched back down next to him, spooning as they call it, and pulled the rest of the blanket over us. I looked up into the air one more time before trying to sleep and suddenly the famous ending to James Joyce’s story “The Dead” came to me. I hadn’t read it since college, but there had to be a reason many thought it one of the most perfect and powerful short stories ever written, although it isn’t all that short. I thought that it was set at Christmastime. What I could remember, more or less, went something like this:
“It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight…. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill … It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I shut my eyes, and figured I’d have to look that one up in the library too. After Christmas Day, anyway.