The first time had to be about five years ago. He was walking slowly down a city sidewalk, parallel to the four lanes of traffic – he walked against the two lanes closest to him. So, the drivers could easily see his face as he walked. You couldn’t overlook him or let him meld into the background, much as we often like to do when we’re disturbed by a person’s physical appearance. This man walks with his head slightly down, long, black, slightly wavy hair, parted in the middle. Thick black eyebrows. He is slim and tall. He wears khaki cargo pants, the kind with lots of pockets and a little polyester so they have a bit of a swish to them as he takes his strides. They fit close to his body, and hang low on his hips. A black jacket hangs from his broad shoulders, past his thin waist. He did not walk on the main part of the sidewalk, but similar to the cars being driven in their thin lanes, he walked on the cement curb, one foot in front of the other. He is barefoot. The walk reminds me of that of a runway model and how they place the toe of one foot precisely behind the heel of the foot in front of it. He didn’t totter. Not at all. Neither did he raise his hands out to the side to balance like a tightrope walker. He simply walked, in a steady, strong, slow cadence. He walked with – grace. I remember thinking that the straight posture and balance came from something – dance classes? Fitness or core strengthening exercises? Gymnastics? Modeling, perhaps? It was a trained walk.
Years before I had seen this man in my neighborhood. The neighborhood is not known for having homeless people walking about. Almost never. There was an occasional disheveled looking person walking to a bus shelter, carrying a white plastic bag, with little in it. You could tell by the way it hung from the wrist. I’d imagine toothpaste, toothbrush, maybe a bottle of water? Over the last few years there were just a few people with these white plastic bags. You knew only a fraction of their story by seeing them – the part of their deep, convoluted, complicated story – the part they could no longer hide.
This man stayed in the neighborhood season after season. He would just appear one day. If the weather was cool he wore that long black coat – similar to an oilskin duster worn on a ranch – and work boots. In warm weather he would walk without shoes. That’s when he took to walking toe to heel on the cement curb rather than the sidewalk.
One day my daughter said she thought he looked like Jesus – Jesus walking so gracefully, so quietly, with a presence that belied his obvious present lot in life.
There have been a few times when his eyes have met mine as I looked out from behind my steering wheel. And there was the unexpected meeting in the supermarket. He was picking out a few pieces of fruit and I saw his eyes as he looked up at me with his head still bent downward. I was startled. Kind, deep, filled with “knowing” – and, somehow, familiar. I did not know him, yet the familiarity factor was there, and it startled as it commanded to be seen. It wasn’t like the wild eyes of the deranged, but a kind and steady, sure look. A “don’t look over or around me” look. A look “at” me look.
I watched him walk through the fresh produce section, and maneuvering slowly around displays. Grace. An athlete’s grace. A dancer’s grace. Maybe an angel’s grace. This Jesus was food shopping.
It was then for several years that he was absent . When I would see a person panhandling for donations at the end of an off ramp, I would often think of Jesus. Where had he gone? Had it been time to move on? Had he died? Was he sick, in the hospital, or more likely, in prison? He would never have been standing at an off ramp. That I knew.
My daughter recently moved to the city over from mine. This morning it was quiet in my kitchen as a text message came over my phone from her. “I just saw Jesus! Walking near TGI Fridays – he’s down the highway. He’s making his way south!!” So, he was back, but had moved on a little further away from me. It isn’t warm enough yet for him to walk barefoot. Will he stay close by, or is he steadily moving south – a little late in the season for a RI snowbird migration. Do the nomadic homeless go south for the winter? Do they walk all the way to Florida?
Now my daughter will look for him, this Jesus walking. A little more disheveled, and looking a little bit older. With the perfect posture and the dancer’s cadence. Walking with grace. Maybe she will see Jesus food shopping. And he will look up at her with his deep kind eyes – eyes that held his life’s story behind them. Eyes that simply say, “I am here.”