Paul Greenberg

You can never tell when one of them might approach you. Sometimes you see them coming from afar off. Or they can suddenly materialize at your side. "Got a match?" "Sir, I'm stranded here and just need a few more dollars to get a bus to...." "Could you help a...."

The homeless, they're called now. Which only distances us from them further, putting them in a neat socio-economic category, reducing them to paperwork, field studies, articles in journals of sociology. ... When they actually approach, we may hurry on. Who's got the time? We have so much to do, especially four days before Christmas. When there is still so much to do, lists to check off, cards to address, packages to send....

It was a another December 21st more than 40 years ago now. Dec. 21, 1967. That's when they found him out by the railroad tracks that freezing morning.

Unbidden, untended, unnoticed, he lay there. Who knows how long? He'd come at a most inconvenient time -- just four days before all Christendom celebrates the birth of Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me."

But what would have been a convenient time? He would have been a bother any day. Just another bum down on his luck, riding the rails, and sick at that. He was heading West, but Pine Bluff, Ark., would prove the end of the line.

He wasn't sick enough for the hospital to take him in, but he was too sick for the Salvation Army to accept him. So, all through the short, waning hours of that December 21st, the shortest day and longest night of the year, he was trundled back and forth, from one station of his cross to the next. Until by nightfall, there was no place for him but the county jail. Not because he belonged there, God knows, but because he didn't belong anywhere else.

And night fell.

That cell would be the last place he would know in this life. He would die there unattended, in the darkness, some time during the long night. As alone as any of us in the end. When they found him, they shipped out the body, no questions asked, before an autopsy could be performed. And he was gone, as silent as he had arrived.

That might have been the end of it.

But the newspaper got wind of the story. It took a while for a dogged reporter to confirm the basic facts, and even longer to ferret out the details.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.