Friday, February 10, 2012


He sat on the sidewalk, his back resting against the dirty brick siding of the skid row Mission. He could have been forty or sixty or even eighty years old. His clothes were the Uniform of the Streets: a cast-off brown sport coat with frayed cuffs and holes where the elbows should have been; grimy, too-short khaki pants; gray-white socks, the tops of which had been stretched with wear and bagged in ripples to meet scuffed brown loafers.

Smoke, sweat and dust seemed to hover over him in a smoggy cloud, and even where I was standing, several feet away, the acrid odor reached me. I knew that if I moved closer I’d be able to smell the stale alcohol and tobacco on his breath. So I didn’t.

His gray-blond hair, grown long over his ears, stuck out in uneven clumps. His beard was salted liberally with gray, which somehow managed to match the pallor of his skin. Even his eyes had a dull gray look about them, although they had retained a touch of blue to indicate that, once, that may have held life – and a sparkle or two.

He was toothless, a fact readily apparent by the sunken cheeks and puckered, unsupported mouth. Lips stained with tobacco juice held the stubby remains of a dirty cigarette. Experience told me the cigarette was probably a composite of several butts rescued from the streets and re-rolled in the best of the available paper.

His face had volumes etched in it. If they could have talked, the scars on his face would have told stories that men seem to savor: the barroom brawl; the fight with the town bully; the fight over the woman who, at the time, was so important to his pride. However, those scars could also tell stories he wouldn’t want to hear repeated: the cut under the eye when he stumbled drunkenly into a gutter and hit his face against the curb; the time a young “con” rolled him and left him bleeding in the filth of an alley; the time he blacked out and never did find out what happened, having only the scar as a reminder of a “lost” night.

A rumpled paper sack poked from a torn pocket of his jacket. He had one gnarled, dirty hand protectively covering the area in a vain attempt to camouflage the bulge of a bottle outlined against the fabric. I knew the bottle would contain any watered-down rot-gut he had been able to beg, borrow, or steal, and that he would rather die than let anyone take it from him.

The door of the Mission opened, and from nooks and crannies up and down the street, men of all shapes and sizes emerged and formed a ragged line. The animosities and petty differences, such as age or color of skin, normally a thorn-hedge barrier between them, would be set aside for an hour of chapel and some “daily bread.”

After most of the others had gone into the Mission, the man I had been watching stood on spindly legs and shuffled unsteadily toward the door. He tentatively put out a hand to brace himself. Using the door as a prop, he stepped up the stoop and disappeared inside.

I turned and walked away. I thought of the women in his life – long unseen daughters, a wife, a sorrowing mother. I wondered if anyone else ever looked at a man like that, sitting on a sidewalk or wandering in the cold, and saw, not a derelict, but a too-old child, hurting and afraid and lonely. I hoped he found something in the Mission besides a sermon and soup. And as I walked, I prayed.

This was a result of the years I was helping at a mission in downtown Omaha some years ago. Saw so much; loved so many.