My wandering eyes abruptly settle on him; he’s just a few steps ahead of me when my conscious mind picks him up. He walks with a limp as if his left leg is shorter than his right leg. His bare feet look diseased and swollen. But he walks with relatively fast steps. Something about his steps displays a rhythm, confidence, almost like assurance and full awareness of his destination, both figuratively and geographically. He walks as if he knows exactly where he’s headed and in a hurry. I can’t help wondering why a homeless old man would be headed in a hurry at such a time of the day. Homeless I said? Yeah, most probably.
My gaze explores him from his backside, and I slow down my pace with an intuitive desire to observe him more. I can’t help wondering what his story might be. Looking at his physical stature, especially his dirty dreadlocked hair, I get this mental image of a weather-beaten mud and wattle grass-thatched house that badly needs a patch up. How did he end up here? For a shirt, he’s draped in cotton puffed dirty jacket, which suggests a whole lot of other apparel that the jacket is covering. His tattered and patch covered trouser reveals more rags forced on top of each other. He seems oblivious of the scorching heat on this hot and sunny day.
His back firmly supports a fairly big fully, stuffed blue tattered polythene bag, storing probably all his earthly possessions. He comfortably clutches it over his shoulder as if it’s weightless despite his visibly thin and malnourished physical stature. Are they his changing clothes or his bedding, or both? Judging by the patches and the dirt on his clothes, I doubt if he has changed clothes in a year. Bedding? I don’t think so. His kind normally sleeps on cardboard boxes and bare floors. I normally see them on some early morning on shop verandahs on main streets and alleys.
My imaginative mind quickly gets to work to create a story, my made-up story. Question after question, mental questions; Would he coherently narrate his story if I were to ask? Of course, he has one, but would he remember most of it in a sane recollection of most of the events of his childhood, adolescence, and now as an aging sad old man? He has a birthday and a name, but does he share the same desires and feelings as mine? What are his needs, his need, for now, food maybe? How about long time needs, does he have any?
If they are alive, do they know his whereabouts, do they think about him, miss him maybe? His family! Whom does he blame for his current circumstances, fate, destiny? Is he sane enough to pass on the blame? Was his downturn a gradual steer away or he just snapped from the overwhelming weight of piled up, concealed struggles, and accumulated heartaches?
I soon get to know his destination! A few meters ahead, he takes a sharp turn and enters an alley between two high rise buildings. The midway of the alley is blocked by a small hill of accumulated uncollected garbage, trash from the surrounding restaurants and hotels. I slow down and pause in time to watch him safely drop his luggage on the side and hurriedly scavenge through the trash looking for leftovers. He methodically rips open the food leftover packages scooping out food. I subconsciously step forward in the alley at the same time searching my pockets for any lose money to hand out to him. I quickly glance at the one thousand shillings tattered note and move further forward with my stretched out hand beckoning him to take the old note. He straightens up, gives me a curious look as he holds my gaze, and then shakes his head side-ways rejecting the money. Confused, I standstill wondering why my offer of alms was forbidden. Then his wrinkled old face breaks into a grin revealing dirt-stained littered teeth that I could easily count on my hand with more gaping holes than the teeth.
In a hoarse steady voice and a schooled accent, he clarifies, “I am not a beggar, and my needs are covered, fully met” Seeing me glance around the surroundings weighing his claim, he adds, as if reading my thoughts, “I used to sing, I still sing, but only with them now, in the dead of the night.” Before I could ask, ‘who is them’, “the angels!” He looks up wide-eyed in surprise that I couldn’t pick them out on his first mention. “I don’t see them but I know they are all around me. We sing worship songs, songs to God high above all things and all beings. We have a song too many, and a few more left before I am called to go home to be with the one I worship. Then will I worship without ceasing, truly rest from this misery and sorrow. So yes, I don’t take handouts, at least not always.
You know, I see them all. I see a lot in their eyes when they hand out their pocket change.
Some I see such deep sadness in their eyes, haunted eyes. They running away from the houses they built with dirty money earned from robbing and mistreating the poor, and they think a few handouts will conceal their evil and numb their pain.
Others are looking for relief from their guilt-filled souls, they’ve been consumed by greed and love for money. Their souls are now permanently damaged and pricked with many sorrows. I see them all! The fear in their eyes and the sadness in their souls. You’re different, you give out of your religious conviction, you mean well. I won’t take your money though, but I won’t block your blessing either, you’ve already earned it. You’ve given in obedience and love-filled compassion to the least of his brothers. The intention and motive are what counts not the act. The heart in the giving is what matters, not the act nor the amount.
I could tell you my story and the valuable lessons I’ve gathered along my unfortunate path of life. But look behind you,” I glance back to see a small crowd of pedestrians slowly gathering, giving us quizzical looks questioning our intentions, he continues, “they gather to give you judgmental looks, and me contemptible sneers because we talk. The stench from my half-dead body they can’t stand. Take heart, we are of the same kind, we are brothers, we are all headed ‘THERE’. We will have enough time to catch up when we both cross over. My time comes soon, ooh what a rest that awaits me! Carry no hate for them, for neither do I, at any chance reach out to them with the TRUTH. Go in peace, and wear no prejudice on your shirt sleeve, angels will you welcome.”
He abruptly gets silent lost in thoughts, and then he looks up and gives me a polite nod. I understand I was being dismissed from his gripping presence. As I stroll back from the alley, lost in a confusion of thoughts, I couldn’t quite decide, how much of what I just heard was true. Was this dirty old man sane and saved by the same grace after all? Does his dying body conceal a beautiful and regenerated soul?
Before I could find the answers, the alarm loudly sets off, shoving me out me out of a vivid dream about a mysterious homeless old man.