A General Lee Look-Alike
Doing the Father’s will by helping a homeless brother
On my evening walk, I spied a silver-bearded fellow sitting up like a marmot-in-surveillance between the wall and bushes of the Senior Center. I gave him a brief sidelong glance. His steady glare seemed threatening, but I could have imagined that, for it was hard to judge from a distance. So I ignored him as I walked past. He was preparing to bed down for the night. I had never seen him before.
But one sunny day not long after, I saw someone who looked like the same bearded fellow. He was sitting on a concrete park bench reading a book. He had a husky build, as if he were used to hard labor.
I decided to brave it. “Hi, you look like the fellow I saw camping by the Senior Center the other night.”
“Yeah, I saw you too ― looking at me.”
“I’m Richard, and you are?” I sat down beside him.
“Casey’s my name. Haven’t had a man-to-man conversation in a while.” He was balding, with a trimmed beard that made up for his thinning hair. I would guess he was 60ish, with kind blue eyes and handsome features, neatly dressed in clean clothes. He did not appear to be homeless except for his backpack belongings. He had lost his four upper front teeth, leaving a wide ungainly gap when he smiled. He drew his backpack toward him and lowered his book.
We shook hands, while I asked, “Where’re you from?”
“Born and raised in San Marcos, graduated high school here, too.”
“Is your family around? How long you been homeless?”
“Two months after I got laid off from work as a painter of residential homes.” He coughed. “That cough and my gravelly voice are from being dumb and not using a respirator on the job. As for my family, they’re all dead or missing, ‘cept my mom . . . she’s comatose in a hospice.”
“So, what kind of jobs have you had?”
“Oh, I’ve worked as a painter for 30 years and helped build two ranch homes, so I know carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing. Don’t have no license though. I’ve even done big time fishing for sardines and salmon up north. I once worked the tuna fleet down in San Diego, but now that industry’s gone. I got unemployment compensation till that ran out. California’s real attractive for us homeless though … with them food stamps, Medicaid, free trolley. I got this smartphone here for free with all the apps …Google, it’s got everything I need.”
“What about shelter?”
“Well, that’s not so good. Booked up solid for months at Interfaith, and it’s getting cold. But the sheriff don’t bother us none when sleeping on public property like in this here park.”
“So, you’d been working steady, but didn’t save for that inevitable rainy day?”
“Yup, lost my $800 monthly trailer space when I couldn’t pay the rent. Then my trailer for not making payments. Then my old car died on me. All I have is my bike over there in the bushes. I don’t smoke, or drink, or do any drugs … just had a streak of bad luck. Need time to get back on my feet, is all.”
At this point I got the feeling he was in a different homeless category than others I’ve met.
“So what’s your recovery plan? You looking for work now?”
“Yeah, got some leads, like a palletizer job over at Hollandia dairy. I went there, and the lady said I had to go online to submit an application and resume. ‘Go online,’ can you believe that? Used to be we filled out an application at the job site. Now we need a computer hook-up.
“So I visited the Senior Center yonder and asked a volunteer lady in the computer learning center if she’d help me. While she was playing solitaire on one of them 20 vacant computers in there, without turning her head from the screen, she said to me, ‘Good luck with that.’ But then another volunteer offered to help me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. What’d she mean by that?” I asked, as if I did not know she was flicking him off. “Why didn’t she help? You don’t in any way look homeless or unkempt.”
“Thanks. Maybe she wanted to get rid of me just so she could finish her solitaire game.”
I felt distressed by his report and volunteered to walk over to see for myself. When we got there, I watched and listened as he asked the same lady, and she said the same thing. She did not know that I had a table-tennis acquaintance with the supervisor, so I went over to her office and briefed her. She was alarmed and led me out the door to remedy that lady’s rude attitude problem.
He got his help right quick. Casey handled it like a gentleman, with not one unkind word. If I were he, I think my anger would have bubbled over in scorn. I left him working at the computer with the other volunteer.
Next day, I saw him sitting in the lounge at the Senior Center, his backpack next to him, and on top he had a few stalks of raw celery in a plastic bag donated from the kitchen. He was reading his novel, then saw me and waved. I asked him what the novel was about.
“Oh, one of them military spy novels I love. Maybe I was a soldier in a previous life….”
“You get far with your application yesterday?”
“Not really. Puckered out when the going got rough. I have to use the library and try to do it myself. Trouble is I don’t have a library card, and I’m not too savvy with computers. Meanwhile that palletizer job at the dairy may get filled before I can get my act together.”
The lost ‘s’ sounds from his missing front teeth, and my diminished hearing for treble, had me straining to understand him. But I heard the urgency loud and clear.
In my head, Jiminy Cricket started with his chirping that I should volunteer to help him.
‘Offer to walk over to the library with him. You’ve got a library card and you’re a whiz with computers. What are you waiting for?’
“But I have a deadline for submitting a magazine article today. It may take hours to get Casey what he needs, and I don’t have the time for this. No, I tell you, I won’t do it.”
‘You know our Creator’s standing right here listening and watching you in all this! What’s more important: writing words about the Way to live, which few will ever read and even less act upon, or helping your homeless brother?’
“I’m too busy.”
‘Then you drum up an excuse for your editor. Tell her the truth, that you went sick in the head with temporary insanity. Say no, if you want to remain a stiff wooden puppet all your life. Or say yes, if you want to be a warm human being made of flesh and blood. Besides, you’d be doing your Father’s Will and helping your brother Casey get a job!’
Jiminy won as usual, and I heard myself say, “Okay, let’s walk to the library. I’ll help you.”
Casey came unraveled. “Are you sure?” He could not believe that anyone would do this for him. He fluttered around with his belongings and decided to leave them there. He stared aghast at me. He did nervous shifting of his legs, as if they were conflicted for a clear directive from him, while he kept looking back at me. The shock treatment he had just received came from beyond my feeble capacity, was quite noticeable, and maybe life changing.
“Yes, let’s go now, before Hollandia closes at 5 pm,” I said, standing ready at the doorway.
I looked at my watch. It was 2:50 pm, and it would take us ten minutes to walk there.
We were walking together on Mission Road when I asked him if Casey was his real name.
“John Casey Jones is my full name, and yours?”
I gave him my Italian surname. “I’m a thoroughbred, back to the Roman Empire.”
“Really? I wonder how far back I go. I’m of English descent.”
“Your name reminds me of John Paul Jones, our famous fleet commander during the American Revolution.”
“Well, I’m told my great, great, great, great, great grandfather was General Robert E. Lee.”
“You sure you have enough greats in there. Let’s see, 150 years ago is about six generations. You know, now that you mention it, you look a lot like pictures I’ve seen of him. Same jaw line, beard, facial shape, body build ― some might think a reincarnation of the man.”
“You think so?” he said with a toothless grin.
“He was a great general. Maybe that’s why you crave military stories. Your genes are aching for action. Sounds like you’ve got what it takes. No telling what happens when folks realize how great they are deep down inside. Maybe I’ll hear of you getting famous some day.”
I could sense he was churning fresh inspiration like milk into butter. He couldn’t cease grinning the whole way. We reached the library and finally got online. It took an hour to do his application, partly because the form was tedious and partly because he fumbled to search for personal details. Maybe that’s why the volunteer said what she said.
The Hollandia job was for heavy lifting and stacking pallets all day long for $13 an hour. I wouldn’t be able to do it with my back trouble. He was so excited while getting this application done that his gravelly voice grew loud, disturbing others in the computer room. The security guard had to shoosh him, but it did not help much. He was so excited and could not believe it was finally happening. I had a grin on my face seeing him so jazzed.
It was done in time before Hollandia closed for the day. He was to get a call on his free smartphone.
“The lady at the dairy said I’d have the job if I could get my stuff in pronto. I can’t thank you enough,” he said, his eyes locked on mine with sincerity and gratitude.
“Pay it forward when you can.” We walked back to the Senior Center and parted. I have not seen Casey since. I pray he got the job, but I may never know. Matter of fact, I may never know for sure who I helped: Casey, a revived General Robert E. Lee, or Christ Himself (Matt 25:35-40).