They're invisible. At least to most of us. You may see them but not perceive them. They shamble along downtown streets, tramp the highways, always en route, never arriving. They wait under bridges, outside the Salvation Army, on dingy corners. They each have a story, real or not. If they approach, we eye them warily, but that's as close as many of us want to come. It's the first law of self-preservation: Avoid eye contact. We're in a hurry. We've got to get to work, or home, or to the next appointment. To wherever we need be. Or think we need to be.
They have no names, not to us.
They may become local characters, recognizable on sight, but not persons. They're called Street People, the Unfortunates, whatever impersonal abstraction you prefer; they are no more real than references to The Poor or The Underprivileged in a politician's speech or a non-profit's annual appeal. They merit only a passing glance, then they're gone.
I knew one such, and thought I knew him well. He was another newspaperman, a drinking buddy, only he wouldn't stop drinking. He would die in a distant city after being found huddled in a church doorway beaten nearly to death. He had a name to me: Joe Farmer. But he must have seemed just another nameless wanderer to those who'd stepped over him on the street.
They come, they go, unseen, unknown. One of them got to Arkansas 43 years ago today, and not on any crack express. His sleeper would have been a boxcar, his diner wherever he could scrounge a meal. And for him this was the end of the line. Maybe he knew it, because he was still aware enough to lift himself off the train somehow, and wait for help. Or maybe he fell off. We never knew. He was just somebody passing through. Like the rest of us.
For some reason -- there's always a reason because for some of us there are no coincidences -- he'd wound up in a spot on the map called Pine Bluff, Ark., on Dec. 21, 1967. Typing out the date like that makes it seem so long ago, maybe before you were born, Gentle Young Reader.
It was long ago, but for somebody who remembers, who makes a point of remembering this date every year, it was just yesterday. Even today.
It'll sneak up on you, Dec. 21. Like a thief in the night. That's the date this wayfarer would enter the town's history, though surely neither the town nor he knew it at the time.
Now, every Dec.21, the man out by the tracks comes back to mind. We didn't know it then, and surely he didn't know it, but he had come to tell us something. It would take a reporter days, weeks, to find out his name. It turned out to be Joe Telles, as in Tell Us.
He was nameless to the people who found him, just another bum down on his luck, riding the rails, and this was where he'd landed. He would never make it to wherever he was going. He wouldn't even make it to Christmas.
He'd arrived four days before all Christendom is to rejoice in 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'd come at a bad time. People are so busy this time of year with their own plans. And along he'd come -- like still another chore to be done with, scratched off the list.
In the words of the old gospel hymn they used to sing in black churches, We Didn't Know Who You Was.
And so, through the short, waning hours of that Dec. 21, the shortest day and longest night of the year, he was trundled from one station of his cross to another.
There was no room for him at the inn. They said he wasn't sick enough for the hospital to take him in. And he was too sick for the Salvation Army to take responsibility for him.
So they put him up in the county jail -- not because he'd done anything wrong, but because there was no place for him anywhere else.
That would be the last place he would know in this world. They would find him the next morning. Sometime during the night, they didn't know just when, he'd died. In the dark. Alone.
At first the newspaper heard only a rumor -- something about somebody dying in the jail and the body being shipped out before an autopsy could be performed.
Strange how what turns out to be a big story will surprise you -- how it may not be about the great and powerful, about Roman emperors and their census and taxes. Sometimes it's just about people looking for shelter on the road, a place to spend the night on the way to someplace else. Joe Telles's story, it turns out, mirrors The Story.
He left behind little but the usual, fragmentary chronicles of the poor and troubled. A brush with the law years ago, traces of a family, an illness only vaguely diagnosed. . . . There was no way to know what he thought, what he prayed, that last night. Some of us still wonder about that every Dec. 21.
It hurts to think about it, but it's a saving kind of hurt. It reminds us there is still time. Four whole days of it. Time to wake up, to free ourselves from the hubbub, to slip off our numb, dying selves, and come alive to the least of these. Four days to bring Christmas.