I guess we all have those little defining moments in our life that help to define who we are. Those little epiphanies in life where you suddenly "get it" and start to better understand the world around you. One of those defining moments came to me in the form of a crippled little man named John.
John was a neighborhood fixture during my youth. He was a small, older man who was crippled by, I assume, something like muscular dystrophy . His legs didn't quite work right and he would have to drag one leg in front of the other. He had difficulty speaking and it was hard to understand what he was saying. John spent every day wandering about my neighborhood dragging around one of those little two-wheeled wire basket carts like people used to take with them to the grocery story to carry their groceries home. John used his cart to carry a handful of magazines that he would peddle around the neighborhood for 25 cents. I don't think he really needed the little money that he made from selling the magazines as I understand that he had a family that took good care of him. I think he did it just for something to do and to feel useful.
John would makes his usual stops at the local drug store, grocery store, and the gas station where I worked as a teenager. He was always friendly and loved to chat with anybody who would give him a few minutes of attention. Most people really couldn't understand what he was trying to say and would dismiss him with a polite "uh huh". Maybe they would buy one of his magazines, as much out of kindness or pity as for wanting the reading material which was probably a week or two out of date anyway.
Some of those that saw John regularly would buy him his favorite treat, one of the little 6 ounce bottles of Coca Cola from the vending machines that were in every mom & pop store back then. Man, he loved those little Cokes. If you bought one for him he was your friend for life and it guaranteed that you would be seeing him often as he came back hoping for another one.
I grew up seeing John wandering around the neighborhood. This hunched-over broken little man dragging his cart around. He would often be seen walking along some of our busier roads where there were no sidewalks. Cars would be swerving around him walking along the side of the road and I have no idea how he got away with doing that for as many years as he did. The neighborhood kids would often make fun of John, some more cruelly than others. I too occasionally had some fun at John's expense although I was never really cruel to him and in fact was known to come to his defense on a couple of occasions when other kids were going a little too far in tormenting him.
John was a devout Southern Baptist and a deacon in the Baptist church of my youth. This earned him the nickname of "John the Baptist" among the neighborhood kids. One of their favorite pranks was to ask John if he had the Catholic Journal in his cart to which John would angrily reply "I ain't no damn Cat-lic, I'm a Baptist!". The kids would giggle and laugh over getting a rise out the old man. We made fun of him and occasionally bought him a Coke but never thought much about him beyond that.
John would frequent the gas station where I worked as a teenager. He would often make the same joke about watching me pump gas. Yes, this was back in the days when pump jockeys like myself would actually pump your gas for you, check under the hood, and even clean your windows. You sat in the car while we pumped your 50 cent per gallon gas. Anyway, John would watch me put the pump nozzle in the car which in those days was usually behind the license plate above the rear bumper. John would say "It looks like you are giving a baby an enema" and then laugh at his own joke.
One day, John was hanging around the gas station while I worked. I bought him a Coke out of the vending machine and was having a little fun with him. I asked him to tried-and-true "Have you got the Catholic Journal there in your cart?" expecting to get his usual "I ain't no damn Cat-lic" retort. Instead, John just looked at me and said "You know, if I was normal, I would be a minister."
BOOM! Those simple words from this broken little man hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly the lights went on and for the first time I saw John as a person. A real, thinking, feeling person. And suddenly I felt like I was about two inches tall. I suddenly realized that John had, for all of those years, fully understood all of the name-calling and teasing that had been directed at him. He had taken it admirably and gone on with his life doing what he did. He never shied away or stayed home so as not to be teased. He went out every day dragging his little cart fully knowing what to expect as he made his rounds.
That moment became a permanent part of me. In that fleeting moment John had taught me volumes about compassion and to think beyond the exterior of a person. I viewed all people a little differently from that day on. John and I remained friends. We would kid each other and I would buy him Cokes, perhaps a little more often that I had in the past. I grew up and moved on to other jobs and didn't see John as much. One day I heard that he had finally been struck and killed by a car as walked along a busy road.
I will always remember John and what he taught me about life and people. He probably didn't even mean to, but he taught me anyway. Those little moments like that are what make you who you are. John will always be a part of me, and now, maybe he is a part of you too.
Thank you John. It was an honor to know you.