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The Man in the Street or A Warning

Matt, a recent graduate of the University of Dallas, is a Catholic Worker in Houston.

My stomach is nice and full of delectable delights as I write this article. I only mention this because the guy digging through the dumpster, who was the motivation for the article, had a decidedly empty stomach. It is always a little disturbing to see someone trying to scrape food together out of someone else’s trash, especially if it is in the dumpster right outside your front door. Furthermore, I knew the man (whom we will call Carlos, partly for anonymity and partly because I still do not know his name), and he is quite annoying. He saw me as I walked out the door, and for a moment or two I thought about ignoring him, even after he addressed me. Yet I had the strange feeling that talking to Carlos would be very important, so I went over to him.

Carlos was slightly drunk, and his breath, combined with the odor of rotting turkey he dug out of our dumpster, made for a wretched smell. He began by asking me why I “didn’t want to help him” and how the jacket we gave him was for kids. There’s a start; the drunk who constantly asks us for stuff – which we give him – is complaining about the quality of the donations he received and then probably sold for booze. Still, I did think it important to listen to him, because people need more than food and clothing. Boy, was I right.

Things took a turn when Carlos said he didn’t want to be any more trouble, and that he would just go back to looking for food. I begged him not to, telling him I could just run inside and grab him something to eat, and then he began to cry. For the rest of the conversation Carlos switched from tears and ranting to moments of incredible lucidity. He was very confused about his life, wondering how he could come to living on the streets at over 50 years old, when he had worked in the U.S. for 25 years. He was contemplating suicide.

Carlos had worked in California and New York before coming to Houston, after he separated from his wife and family. He had had his license suspended for a DWI in New York, ending his career as a chauffer. He went to some meetings for alcoholism at a church, since he did not have the hundreds of dollars a month to spend on classes, but after 2 ½ months of classes the judge did not accept this as a method of reform, as it was not approved by the State of New York.

Carlos was now in Houston, sleeping on the streets, and becoming more and more beaten down, because, as he told me, “You can’t be a decent and honest person on the street; you’ll be persecuted by the other street people.”

So there I was, a rich man to this Lazarus who was looking for scraps of food. I could not help the softening of my heart after hearing his story. The first year Carlos was in the U.S. he worked for and lived with a family in the country. He was the only Hispanic in town, and he knew no English, yet he was treated with love and respect by everyone. He told me he was “a fly in the milk”, but that the family looked past those small differences.

I didn’t have to make the connections between his situation and the current anti-immigrant sentiment in our country; Carlos did it for me. He yelled about the hypocrisy of the U.S. using illegal immigrants for cheap labor while simultaneously persecuting them for being illegal. He also didn’t like the fact that everyone thinks that all day-laborers are illiterate (Carlos actually is nearly trilingual and mathematically inclined, and in the course of our conversation even made references to Cervantes’ creative ability and perseverance). But the thing most striking was how he saw so clearly that the problems all stemmed from not treating people like human beings, no matter what their situation. This was probably because he has experienced it for so long, but to me it was striking.

However, something even more striking came a few seconds later, when I realized that I have persecuted others in the same way he had been describing. Everyone knows there are laws that must be respected, and we have them for immigration, crimes, you name it. At the Catholic Worker, the place for personalism, freedom, and responsibility, even we have a number of rules. But rules exist to protect those that need protection, not to keep the least of our brothers as second-class human beings .

I understand that we must have widespread immigration reform, and that the economic and political situation in Latin America forces people to come here illegally, and that America cannot have an open border policy. I even understand – all too well – one’s initial reaction to drunks and bums asking for handouts. But I also know that God demands of us something more than merely looking out for ourselves. Even if this man has made mistakes in his life and is, de facto, a criminal, he deserves love and respect because he is, de facto , a human being.

Thus, I asked Carlos to wait for me, ran inside, grabbed a lunch from our well-stocked fridge, an extra blanket, and one of my dozen or so shirts and brought them to him. I hugged him and kissed him on the forehead (not exactly St. Francis kissing the leper, but then again, I’m not exactly St. Francis). He said that he was going to go on living and not kill himself because he wanted to show disbelievers that there is still good in the world. That hit me hard, not because I was emotional – which I was – but because I know who I am and how short I fall of being good. But for that moment, I at least made a small effort to give from the great substance I have to a Lazarus.

In the biblical story, the rich man, after dying and going to hell, wanted to go back to his family to warn them and tell them to share their goods. He was denied, for if his kinsmen did not listen to Elijah and the prophets, his coming would do them no good. He could bring them no warning. Consider this a warning.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, January-February 2008.