Paul Greenberg

So little time, so much to do, what with Christmas almost here. Cards to mail, last-minute presents to buy, stockings to hang. ... It must have been like that the day they found him out by the railroad tracks. That was long ago in little Pine Bluff, Ark. -- but he still comes to mind every time the calendar flips to the 21st of December.

Unbidden, untended, unnoticed, he lay there. For 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."

He was just another bum riding the rails, and an ailing one at that. What was to be done with him? He wasn't sick enough for the hospital to take him in, but he was too sick for the Salvation Army to put him up.

And so, all through the short, waning hours of the shortest day 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, but because he didn't belong anywhere else.

And night fell.

That cell would be the last place he would know in this life. Alone, unattended, in the darkness, some time during that longest night of the year, he would die. When they found him next morning, they shipped out the body quickly, no questions asked, even before an autopsy could be performed. And he was gone, as silent as when he had arrived.

Somehow the local paper got wind of the story, and did what a local paper is supposed to do: ask questions, unearth the facts, let people know what had happened in their town.

Thanks to a reporter named Harry Pearson at the Pine Bluff Commercial, more would be known about how this wayfarer had died, hour by hour, than how he had lived, year after unrecorded year.

It took the longest time just to discover his name: Joe Telles, as in Tell Us. He had passed through town like a messenger unheeded, yet his message would be remembered every December 21st afterward. Somebody would see to that.

"There are no coincidences," a rabbi once told me. Maybe I'm not here to think Deep Thoughts and write about Big Issues despite all my pretenses. Maybe I'm just here to say kaddish, the prayer on the anniversary of a death, for the Joe Telleses of the world. All I know for sure is that, as long as I breathe, I can't let a December 21st pass without remembering Joe Telles.

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.