photo by Giarcmulb, found on Flickr

I am not, in any sense of the word, what you might call a casual observer.  I look like one, I sometimes even act like one. But my eyes are constantly busy, my brain never stops looking for a story.  I make people-watching an Olympic sport. Relaxation — I don’t have time to relax, and neither would anyone else if they’d only realize that they might not be here tomorrow.  I treat everything I do seriously. I even treat having fun seriously: when I embark on some expedition or some “grown-up adventure”, like a special concert or trip, I have to consciously tell myself that it’s time for a hiatus: that, at that moment in time, my only job is to chill out. I have to consciously try, very hard, not to over-analyze. It took me five years or more to really understand that half  (or more) of what Joe says is nonsense, not literal truth;  it took me another three to figure out how to actually respond to some of it.  He’s admitted that he would  respond “cleverly” sometimes just because he enjoyed watching me work myself up in knots over something he thought was completely random. Even though I know how to pretend to be a relaxed, happy-go-lucky chic, in all reality, I’m mainly serious.

Perhaps this is why a smile has the ability to knock me clean off my feet, to stun me. Perhaps it is why I recognize a joyful nature on sight: because it’s so different than mine. That’s not to say that I’m unhappy, because I’m not.  But there are some individuals who are just overly cheerful.  For instance, on my show,  I Survived… a man who was caught for three days in blizzard and who thought he’d lost his feet, said, “I didn’t need my feet. Who cared about feet?”  I really liked him. I liked him because, in the midst of intense obstacles, he was able to find true optimism. When I meet someone, I can generally tell within a few minutes whether that person’s jovial nature comes from an intrinsically happy heart or a facade. So, I credit that with helping me quickly recognize Joey for what he was: an angel.

I was in college, in Murfreesboro. It was summer, and I was relatively happy. I was submerged in a dozen different volunteer efforts, convinced that that was healing the pain my heart had been in for a long time (truth be told, though, I think now it was doing double duty: while it was playing a pivotal role in my healing, it was also masking the pain, not vanquishing it).  I was trying to look past a devastatingly traumatizing heartbreak. And it seemed to be working. One day, my sister and I were riding around and stopped at a local gas station, near the college campus. We’d been there many times. We didn’t need gas that day: we’d stopped to get a Coke. As usual, a handful of college kids, dressed in the normal khakis, blue jeans and university tee shirts loitered around. We paid attention to none of them. We paid for our drinks and were laughing as we walked out of the store.

Suddenly, we saw this man. He was in his forties, probably, with a slight bend to his back and dark hair;  some facial hair. To be completely honest, as much as I’d like to, I can’t recall exactly what he wore, only that he was dirty, and his clothes were dark. Thinking he was going to ask for money that we didn’t have to give him, my sister and I walked the other way. This was news. My sister has always had a soft spot in her heart for the homeless: it is an issue she cares about. And, generally, she’d hand over however many dollars she had to spare to someone who asked. Today, though, we kept walking.

“’Cuse me, miss.”

Reluctantly, my sister and I turned. Though my sister had the soft spot for the homeless, I’m the one who, when actually approached and spoken to by someone in need, has a very hard time saying no. We smiled, and readied our response. But, instead of asking for money, he extended his arm. On his wrist were a dozen or so bracelets. They were different colors. They were small. They were obviously homemade.

“You can have any one of these you want.”

Convinced he was going to ask us to buy one, we changed our readied response to a polite no. But he shook his head, insistent. “I don’t want money. They’re free.  You don’t have to buy one.”

That got our attention.  Now we were interested in what he was doing, why he wasn’t asking for money when it was perfectly clear he needed it.

“Go ahead, which one do you like?”

My sister and I each told him a color bracelet we liked. He nodded. “I’m just a homeless man from Nashville that makes bracelets. You can each have one. I don’t want money. I just want you to promise me that, somewhere, at sometime, you will help three homeless people, however you can, whenever you can. It doesn’t have to be a specific amount. It might not even be money. Just help them, whenever you can, however you can.”

Something gripped my heart hard and my eyes focused more on him, for the first time.

We chose a bracelet, made the promise, thanked him, and left the store.

Only, I felt sea-sick, something ate at my heart the rest of the day. Whenever I’d glance at the bracelet, I felt the tug again. Over the course of the next day or so, I couldn’t stop thinking about Joey. Eventually, I sought him out. I started making daily trips to the gas station, hoping I’d see him. And he’d smile at me. He had the most beautiful, captivating smile. And when he’d smile at me, his blue eyes lit up like the fourth of July. He laughed, too. I remember that. He’d stand in front of me, and laugh. He’d smile. I saw him talking with other people, trying to hand out his bracelets. He was serious then. But he’d always smile at me. Sometimes he’d wink. His smile did things to my heart. Every time I left the gas station, I did so regretting that I hadn’t instigated a deeper conversation with him. He knew things I didn’t.

And I knew it.

Eventually, one day, I heard him approach someone else, give his spill. He always introduced himself as “a homeless man from Nashville.” He never offered his name. After a week or more of sneaking around the gas station for his smile, just to be near him, really, trying to figure out what the heck I was supposed to do with him, he approached that man and introduced himself, once again, as “a homeless man from Nashville.”  Something nagged at me the rest of the day. It bugged me. I didn’t want him to be introduced as a “homeless man from Nashville” because I knew from his smile that he was something else. He was too intrinsically happy to ignore himself that way. I wanted to know his name. I wanted everyone else to know his name too.

So, back to the gas station I went, this time with a purpose.

Indeed, he was there.  He stood in front of the counter, chatting with the clerk. He looked happy, as always. He was smiling. As always. He winked at me as I approached him. I was so incredibly nervous. My stomach was churning. I’d rehearsed what I wanted to say in the car. Somehow, though, he set me at ease. “Hi, Tiffini,” he greeted, his eyes dancing with happiness. He smiled at me again and I took a deep breath.

“Hi.  Can I talk to you?”

Now, the smile on his face was replaced with genuine surprise. He nodded, shrugged.  He seemed genuinely taken aback by my request. I suppose that makes sense. I was just a well-to-do college student. He couldn’t have known any different.

“I – I haven’t kept my promise to help the three homeless people, yet, but I will. I want to really help them, though. I will do it.”

He nodded once, slowly. “I believe you. That’s good.”

“But…..I’d like you to make me a promise.”

Surprise was replaced with shock on his face. I don’t remember anything else about his facial expression except that I saw shock enter his eyes. “Okay,” he carefully replied.

“I’d like you to promise that when you introduce yourself to others, you’ll give them your name.”

The smile was back. His face relaxed. His whole body relaxed, and he was once again the cheerful homeless guy I’d come to expect him to be. “Thank you, honey,” he said. “But I can’t make that promise. I want people to think of me when they meet a homeless person. I want to be the face they see.”

My whole world buckled. Shaken, stomach in my throat, tears threatening me, I nodded, said goodbye and walked away. I got in my car and cried all the way home because I knew then that he was an angel. That was the last time I saw Joey. I went back on another day, looking for him. But no one knew where he was. And, as far as I know, he never returned to that gas station. Maybe he left Murfreesboro and went back to Nashville. Maybe he moved on to Spring Hill. Maybe he went back to Heaven. I don’t know. But, what I do know, is that he changed my life.

He was genuinely, truly happy when he absolutely no reason to be.

You see, the reason I like deeply sad things, like the show I Survived… and memoirs of Holocaust victims and other painfully close-to-home things is because they make me believe that what I survived wasn’t all that bad. I have not slept one night on the street because I did not have a bed somewhere to sleep. I have not witnessed the things that the homeless people probably witness weekly (or, nightly). I have not ever been shot. I have not ever been caught in a blizzard for 3 days and thought I was in jeopardy of losing a limb. My mom made sure that we were never crazy hungry. Joey, on the other hand, was dirty, was homeless, was hungry. And yet. Every time I offered that man money, he refused. If I insisted, he’d take it, telling me I “didn’t have to do that.”  He was not after money. Even though it was money that could alleviate immediate concerns for him, like food. Not only did he not want money, but he was genuinely happy. The look of joy was real in his face, in his eyes, and most assuredly, in his smile. He wasn’t acting.   It was a humbling experience and it made me realize that my world wasn’t as bleak as it sometimes felt. If he could smile, if he could experience true happiness, despite his current circumstances, then there was absolutely no excuse for me not to be able to do the same.

I’m happy to say that his desire came true:  I haven’t been able to see a homeless person since without his picture crossing my mind. It’s taken me a long time to fulfill my promise, because I wanted to give more than just a few dollars to the first homeless people I met.  I’ve waited until I was given the right opportunity, and the ability, to truly help three homeless people. All three have, however, been met. But my commitment to remembering what he taught me, through just brief encounters, has been, and will always be, prevalent in my mind. He reminded me of the importance of a smile. He reminded me of the impact strangers have on our lives. He reminded me that problems are relative; what really matters is far more important than anything, even basic necessities like food, can buy.  And his smile comforted me for years.

I believe, firmly, that Joey was an angel.  I can think of no other reason why he might have chosen to be homeless, why he would have the total disregard for money that he did, why I was immediately drawn to him, and why he made me feel the way he did. I can think of no reason why he suddenly disappeared. But, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was just a man who had a passion for the homeless like I have a passion for children. Maybe he was just a man who had come to the crystal clear realization that he couldn’t worship money and expect to find happiness. I don’t know. On the off chance that he wasn’t an angel, but a real person, who might actually one day read something I write, though, my need to express with word my gratitude for his smile, for his presence, led me to write a book with him as one of the primary characters.

I’ve been working all day today re-writing it, so that it’s as good as I can make it before being published. I’ve actually discarded entire chapters (which I never do) to re-write the ten chapters in which he plays a vital role. As I’ve written, I’ve thought of him, and been grateful, again, to him. Life, you see, isn’t really about money. It’s not really about …. well, anything, except God and each other. Life is a story composed of dialogue and non-verbal communication, and whose plot is our journey to realizing the need for God, compassion and understanding.  Life is about moments that pass before you have time to process or understand them. Life is about dreams.  Life is learning that it’s not about blind obedience, or staunch independence, but about trusting and cultivating faith in more than yourself.  It’s about finding the happiness that can only come through a relationship with God, and interaction with others.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that Joey and I were meant to meet. Because I know that, it’s not a hard stretch for me to believe that its possible he may one day read this, or Faith. And if he does, I want him to know that his mission was successful, that I kept my promise and that his smile has replayed itself in my head an infinite number of times. I want to thank him for reminding me to focus on the multitude of blessings I have always had, and to see the still raw scars on my heart as bumps rather than dead end roads. All in all — I just want him to know that I know he’s probably long since forgotten me and my name, and that I don’t care because I haven’ t  forgotten him. Instead — I remember.  

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