Excuse Me, Sir

Posted: Dec 21, 2011 12:01 AM

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.

In the end, more would be known about how he had died, hour by hour, than how he had lived, year after unrecorded year. For his was an unimportant life by the world's spotty reckoning -- a forgotten grayness punctuated here and there by a vague brush with the law, the traces of a family, an illness no one ever quite diagnosed ... all the ordinary desperations of such a life. Or rather existence.

It took the longest time just to discover his name: Joe Telles, as in Tell Us.

It was as if the only mission he'd ever completed had been reserved for that last, mercifully shortest day of the year. He had passed through like a messenger unheeded, yet every December 21st I think of him.

Strange how things work out. And how you never know, really, why you should be in a certain place at a certain time. There are no coincidences, a rabbi once told me. Maybe I'm not here to think Deep Thoughts and write about Big Issues and New Paradigms and The Next Big Thing. Maybe I was just meant to say kaddish for Joe Telles every December 21st.

What a strange gift Joe Telles was -- unrecognized, even rejected and resented. Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.

One year a local businessman stopped by the newspaper office with an impressive list of complaints about the paper's editorial positions -- political, economic, aesthetic, miscellaneous, you-name-it. ... Oh, and one more thing: He was sick and tired of having to read every year about that bum they found out by the railroad tracks. Why couldn't I write about something positive for a change?

And, no, he couldn't recall the guy's name.

I should add that the caller was a friend, charitable in all outward respects -- and always a good man of business, as Scrooge told Marley's heavy-laden ghost. He just couldn't see some things.

The light shined in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.

Yet the darkness still has not overwhelmed the light, even so many years later. It happens every December 21st, four days before Christmas: Joe Telles arrives again in my mind.

He's sick unto death, at the end of his rope, one of the poor in spirit. I was blind when he came so many years ago, but now I see. And for one rare, blessed moment realize what really matters. Amazing grace.

'Tis the season. We seek the Star, and may not perceive the light of every day, or hear that lonesome whistle, and see our brother approaching.

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