In an April posting, I related the conversation I’d had with Dad before moving to Dayton. He’d advised me to take circuitous routes to my first post-convent job, but I didn’t listen to him and took the same route each day.
The men sitting on cardboard and huddled in doorways got used to seeing me each morning. One by one, they began to approach me or to speak to me from their hidey-holes.
They didn’t “hit on” me, as Dad had feared. They simply asked for money. I always gave them whatever change or dollar bills I had. I’d been taught that we could come upon Jesus unawares and not recognize him. In my mind, these men were Jesus. I couldn’t say no.
One day Bill, the vice-president who’d hired me, glanced over his shoulder as he pulled open the door to the dimly lit stairs leading up to the publishing firm. He saw me handing money to a man sitting on the sidewalk, his back against a wall.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” the drifter said and smiled. A serene smile over the gaps of missing teeth. Surely Jesus.
I walked on to where Bill waited.
“Dee, don’t give these guys money,” he said.
“They might be Jesus.”
I explained. He shook his head. “If you have to give them something, tell them you’ll buy breakfast for them. Ten to one they won’t take you up on it. They’re looking for booze money.”
As he spoke, I looked through the plate-glass window of the cafe next door where customers, seated in the Naugahyde-clad booths lining the wall and at the counter, were wolfing down food. I could easily envision Jesus and I eating there. Bill’s suggestion made ultimate sense.
And so in the year I worked at Pflaum, I ate breakfast with several of those men who inhabited the sidewalks, their heads drooping between tented knees. As we ate, they shared their life stories with me. Most were simply down on their luck.
One had a different definition of woman from what I’d learned in the convent Scholasticate or as a Girl Scout.
On the spring day he and I met, I wore a new dress. Short-sleeved. Bright yellow splotched with white daisies. A narrow belt.
I was standing across from the office, waiting for the light to change. A man in soiled clothing lurched toward me. His face sported whiskers and dirt. His straggly blond hair hung lank against his hunched shoulders. This is Jesus I thought.
I started to dig for coins.
“Ma’am, you’re one mighty fine woman,” he mumbled.
Startled, I dropped the coins, which clattered to the sidewalk, some rolling off the curb and into the gutter. I quickly stooped to pick them up, my thoughts scrambled. He’s talking about my figure. This dress is too clingy. My body’s not hidden in black serge. He can see the outline of my bosom. I covered it with my purse.
“Did ya hear what I told ya? One damn fine woman,” he slurred.
The light changed. I started across. He followed.
“One damn fine figure of a woman.”
“Thank you.” I was walking faster.
“I’m tellin’ ya the truth, Ma’am. One mighty fine figure.”
I wanted to run, but this was Jesus. He might smell like whiskey, but who says Jesus has to be a teetotaler? He was the most famous brewer of all time. Witness Cana. Who says he has to wear newly laundered clothes? This was Jesus.
Turning toward him, I said, “How’d you like some breakfast?”
Now he was the startled one. Then a grin spread across his grimy face.
We shared a meal, and I discovered that Jesus, called Hank on that day in Dayton, was a man of philosophical bent. He had just gotten lost in the cracks.
I was one mighty fine figure of a woman.
All photographs from Wikipedia.