My friend Joe…
My friend Joe loves the Cubs and the Blackhawks, as any respectable Chicagonian should. My friend Joe drinks his coffee with cream and reads the Sun-times every morning. My friend Joe enjoys a home-cooked meal when he can get one and has his laundry done once a week. My friend Joe is homeless.
Two police officers walked up to Joe and me a few weeks ago and separated us. “Is this man bothering you, miss?” “Joe? No! He’s my friend!” I replied. “Oh, uh, all right. Hey, it’s OK, she knows him” he yells to his partner. They nod to us and walk away.
Joe and I have known each other for a year and a half now. He has never asked me for anything. I have met many homeless people, and almost all have asked for something: a couple bucks, a meal, a bus pass. Not Joe. Honestly, he doesn’t really need anything. He is not starving. He has a place to sleep every night. He had a job, selling the newspaper, until it was taken away recently. Albeit, the living standard is not what we would call satisfactory, especially for an elderly man. He sleeps in a parking garage and sits outside all day, in the biting wind and the merciless heat.
He has grown old since I have known him. At first his step was light and his cough was only occasional, no doubt from the many smoke breaks I have stood and talked with him through. He seemed to be faring pretty well. Joe is extremely independent, and doesn’t trust most other homeless people in the neighborhood. This fall I have watched his decline; his health, his spirit, his heart. With no income, he scrapes by on the help of those who pass him everyday and know his condition. Sleeping on a garage floor will wear on an old man’s back soon enough, and Joe walks more slowly every time I am with him. Many times I will go to see him and he will be asleep, maybe halfway drunk, sitting upright in his chair.
How can I watch him grow old? I fear every time I go to him, he will not be there. I will have to hear from the shop owners that an ambulance came by because he fell and could not get up, or simply didn’t wake up from his bed next to the dumpsters. Is this why I was brought into his life? To watch him become sick, tired and old, too worn out to go on?
I used to see fight in Joe’s eyes. The light has grown hazy. When I look in them now I see hopelessness and despair.
Yet, he never asks. Never seeks my help. And who am I to say I can help him? He very well doesn’t want or need my assistance. It would be prideful for me to approach him as if I knew what he needed. He has more than survived on that very street corner for nine years. I believe that whether it is rooted in contentment, or stubbornness, or fear, Joe is not moving. He will be on that street corner until someone literally removes him from it. He will watch the seasons pass, he will watch the storefronts change; he will again and again suffer winters’ bitter cold.
Maybe the only reason I met him is so he wouldn’t have to do so, alone. For when I am with him, Joe is not alone.
Joe once gave me some bagels and schmear. Yes, my homeless friend actually gave his food away, to me. They were fresh; a passer by who often gave him food had given them to him earlier that day. Either Joe doesn’t like bagels or just wasn’t in the mood, but he asked me if I wanted them. I took them. I accepted his gift. I ate them and shared them with my roommates all the next week. I tell this because not only is it ironic that my homeless friend is feeding me and my friends, but to crush any stereotypes we have of the homeless. If Joe hasn’t surprised you yet, let this story of sharing raise your eyebrows and make you wonder.
I had high hopes when meeting Joe that I was going to help change his life. Get him off the streets, lead him to Christ and help him live the rest of his life in a better way.
I was wrong. Not that those were negative things to desire for a person—I still deeply desire Joe to see Christ when I am with him, and want that for himself, but by giving him a handout or by coming to see him every week, there is no guarantee that he will ever care why I do what I do.
In the end, I am not saving his life; in fact, I might have to watch him fade away slowly until he just is not there anymore. But he will know that I will miss him. He will know that that street corner is not the same without Joe. Because Joe is my friend.
I call Joe my friend but I doubt he would call me his friend. Not because I haven’t treated him as a friend, I hope that I have. I think that Joe, after living on the streets, confined to a singular slab of pavement for almost a decade, might not remember what it is like to have a friend. He does not remember what it means.
There is give and take in friendship; but there is something much more. I will care about Joe, love him, and continue to visit him because I value him as a person. Even if he never does ask me for help, or open up to me about his life, or tells me he wishes his life was different, I will be his friend.
We often take friendship lightly. Making casual friendships only to have them grow distant or fall apart after a few years, or even months later. This takes a toll on us. Whether we are united in Christ, or befriending someone outside of Christ, we should understand that friendships are meant to last and we are not created for broken relationships. It is not about what we can offer to that person, or what they are giving us, it is about loving the whole person. Every bit of them. For as long as you possibly can.
Joe and I have spent time together, laughed together, thought together, shared together, hurt together and whether or not he defines us as friends, I do. Each time he smiles at my return, that flicker of joy in his eyes, I know I mean something to him. And, I know, he means something to me.