The office of the company I work for is in downtown Kansas City, well actually, it’s kind of on the fringe of the core of downtown. But it’s downtown in the sense that on a pretty regular basis, there are homeless folks walking the street in front of our building. Or climbing into the dumpster in our parking lot. Or standing under the overhang at our front door. My heart is drawn to those folks in part because of the example my dad set in helping the homeless men who gathered in the railroad yard where he worked. On a hot July day last summer, though … on that summer day, I met a man like none I’ve ever met.
Someone I work with saw him first and caused me to notice him … across the street, trying to find shade from the intense heat, sitting in a wheelchair. I stood at the window and watched him as he mopped his forehead and drank from a tattered cup. I stood at the window and watched as he placed a piece of cardboard behind his back. I stood at the window and watched as he tipped his head back and looked toward the sky. I stood and watched, and then I made a decision. I went into the kitchen in my office and filled a garbage bag with ice. I grabbed a 6-pack of bottled water. I walked across the street.
As I approached the man, he said, “You gonna talk to me?”
“I am,” I said, “if that’s OK with you. It’s awfully hot out here … I brought you some ice and some water.”
“Why, thank you,” he said gently as I noticed that he was missing all the fingers on one hand, that his skin was leathery and worn, that his clothes were tattered and dirty … that he had two wooden legs … wooden legs that had two different shoes attached to the ends of them.
“You’re quite welcome, sir,” I said. “I thought the ice and water might help you out in this heat. It’s really a scorcher today.”
“August will be hotter, girl,” he said with a grin crossing his face. “August in Kansas City is always hot.”
“Well, I’m ready for it to cool off a bit myself,” I said. “You got somewhere to sleep tonight? It’s way too hot for you to sleep outside.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I always find a place to sleep. Always find a place to lay this old body down at night.”
“You got a place inside to sleep tonight?” I asked, hoping that my concern for him wasn’t pouring through my voice the way it was coursing through my heart and mind. This guy is old, I thought … this guy is too old to be out here on the streets.
“I was in the war, you know … that’s how I lost my legs and my fingers. Had to amputate ‘em ‘cause they was so shot up,” he said with a note of sadness in his voice.
“So you’re a veteran?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am, I sure am,” he said. “I sure am. I love this country and I love God, too.”
Feeling the tears springing to my eyes, I said, “I’ve got to go back to work. You sure you have somewhere to get in out of this heat tonight, my friend?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied. “God bless you for the ice and the water … God bless you.”
“God bless you, too, sir,” I said as I turned and headed back across the street to my office … my air-conditioned office … my ergonomic chair … my lunchbox filled with snacks … my pink Vitamin Water perched on my desk. Trying to settle back into my spot in the corner of the building, I couldn’t stop thinking about the man. I should have asked him his name, I thought … I should take him the food I have left in my lunchbox. So I gathered up what I had left … some peanut butter packets, some applesauce and a couple of pieces of cheese, and headed down the stairs toward the front door. I stopped and asked a couple of gals if they had any snacks they wouldn’t mind giving the man, and they generously gave what they had. I placed everything into a plastic bag and crossed the busy street once again.
“Hello again,” I called out as I approached the ragged, tattered gentleman. “I brought you some food. I’m worried about you, sir … it’s terribly hot. I brought you some food.”
“Well, hello,” he said as his eyes filled with tears. “You brought me food, too? Ice and water and food?”
“I did,” I said and I showed him what I had in the bag, asking him to promise me that he would eat the can of vegetable soup and some crackers for dinner. “There’s even a little bag of chocolate candy in here for you. You’ll have to eat that up in a hurry so it doesn’t melt out in the heat. Promise me you’ll eat this soup for dinner tonight?”
“I promise,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. “It will be like eating in a fancy restaurant … a feast fit for a king! This food will last me three weeks or more. Thank you, ma’am, thank you.”
“What’s your name?” I asked. “My name is Terrie.”
“My name’s Russell,” he replied with his gentle and kind voice. “I think you must be an angel from the Lord.”
“Oh, no, Russell,” I said as I shook my head. “I’m no angel, my friend. I just want to make sure you’re OK for today. And if I see you out here tomorrow, I’ll bring you some more ice. I’ll bring some extra food from home, too, so that you’ll have some more to eat. I’ve got to go back to work, but you eat this food and find a cool place to sleep tonight, OK?”
“Yes ma’am, I will, I will. God bless you, ma’am … God bless you,” he said.
“And may God bless you, Russell. Would it be alright if I shook your hand before I go?” I asked.
“My hand is dirty, ma’am, but I would be pleased to shake your hand if you don’t mind the dirt,” the kind old man gently replied. “You are the first person in a while who has talked to me, you know … people don’t see me mostly and that’s OK … I’m not much to see anymore.”
Emotion tore through my heart as I took Russell’s hand in mine and placed my other hand over his. “Russell,” I said, my voice cracking as I struggled not to cry in front of him. “I am truly honored to shake your hand today, sir, truly and deeply honored.”
I watched Russell from my office window as he slowly wheeled himself with one hand down the sidewalk. I watched and wondered where he was going. I watched from my window next to my desk as tears rolled down my cheeks. I watched a man whose only earthly possessions were contained in plastic bags that hung from his rusted, wobbly wheelchair. I watched a man who lost his legs fighting for my freedom. I watched a man who has nowhere to live. I watched a man who demonstrated more honor and dignity in our two short conversations than I could ever begin to possess.
That day, I met a man … that hot summer day, I met a man like none I’ve ever met. Be safe, Russell, be safe.
TERRIE JOHNSON is Senior Editor for a nationally recognized advertising agency in Kansas City, and author of Lord, Help! Here Comes Mom! and God Even Loves Wiener Dogs. She is an awarded public speaker, writer of the daily blog, The Tree House, mother to three adult children, and grandmother to the most beautiful, intelligent little girl ever!