It was a cold and damp wintry afternoon many years ago. The space heater was ablaze in the front room of our small, frame shotgun house. The room served not only as a living room but also as a bedroom. With only two bedrooms and seven occupants, sleeping accommodations were at a premium. So, the living room served as the third bedroom. The couch was also a bed. During the day we sat upon it; at night we unfolded the bulky piece of furniture and it became a bed for two of five siblings. At different times over the years, the five siblings, two daughters, and three sons, made that room their bedroom.
The insulation was poor and there were many cracks in the paint and woodwork alongside the windows and doors. In the winter, cold air easily penetrated these numerous, narrow openings and mixed with the heat from the open flame of the space heater. The combination of cool, moist outdoor drafts and the warm dry air of the heater produced condensation which streaked down the walls and windows in uneven lines and patterns. We would say of the streaks of condensation that the walls were “sweating.”
I was only seven or eight years old at the time, but the memory of that day is still vivid in my mind. My mother was in the kitchen, smoking home made cigarettes she rolled herself with a small cigarette rolling device. She would insert a small piece of cigarette paper into the top of the machine, pour enough tobacco to ensure a good smoke and then she rolled the cigarette by operating the lever on the machine. It was cheaper than buying a pack of cigarettes. As usual, she was drinking a cup of chicory laced coffee. It was a Monday and the aroma of red beans simmering on the stove permeated the entire house.
My father, a streetcar conductor, was between shifts. He lay in bed sleeping. Mom would wake him later and he would freshen up, dress and return to the streetcar barn located on Willow and Dublin streets in the Carrollton area of New Orleans for his second shift of the day.
I was in the living room as usual playing with some of my toys. The television was on but because dad was sleeping, the volume was very low.
There was a knock on the front door. There was little crime in New Orleans in the fifties so it was not uncommon for the front door to be unlocked or to open the door without first asking who was there. Besides, it was always someone we knew, a neighbor or an acquaintance. Perhaps it was Mr. Schiro, the insurance agent who personally collected insurance premiums weekly from his customers. Or the person knocking could be the Community Coffee representative who delivered his product to homes.
I opened the door only to find a stranger standing outside. He was tall and thin. His face was gaunt and the speckled stubble on his cheeks and chin matched what hair showed from beneath a soiled, beige baseball cap. His hands were stuck in the pockets of an obviously old and weathered windbreaker. His elbows were drawn in and his shoulders hunched upward in an attempt to better fend off the chilly breeze.
His eyes caught my attention. Dark brown, they were set deep in their protective sockets and they seemed lifeless. They spoke of misery and want and hinted of a lifetime of pain. He looked pathetic and ravaged.
“Is your mother in son?”
I didn’t even bother to close the door nor did I invite him in from the cold. I ran quietly through the two bedrooms and into the kitchen. I was careful not to wake my dad from his midday nap.
“Mom, there’s a man at the door.”
“Who is he and what does he want, Billy?”
I hadn’t asked so I couldn’t tell her.
She followed me to the front room. The door and the stranger were exactly as I had left them. Mom studied the stranger. I detected a slight frown on her face but I didn’t think it was one of anger. I stood by her side, clutching her dress.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Maam, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m out of work. Been out of work for a long time. I’m broke and I’m hungry. Ain’t had nothin’ to eat in a couple of days. Can you spare some food?”
Mother hesitated, apparently eyeing up the stranger in an effort to assess the truth. Suddenly, her countenance changed. I saw it in her eyes. A wave of pity and empathy enveloped her.
“Sure. My dinner’s not cooked yet but, I can make a sandwich for you if that’s OK.”
He bowed his head slightly, almost embarrassed by his condition. He replied in a low voice, “I’d really appreciate that maam.”
She started toward the kitchen and then stopped abruptly.
“Please, come in from the cold. Have a seat but, please be quiet. My husband’s asleep.”
The stranger nodded. He entered the house tentatively as if he were entering forbidden territory.
“Billy, keep the man company.”
I sat on the floor. The television was on but my eyes were on our guest. He was poor and I felt sorry for him. He didn’t say a word. He only stared at the floor with his miserable eyes. He loosened his shoulders somewhat as the warmth of the room quickly embraced him.
Within minutes mom returned with two sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, an apple and a small container of milk.
“If you like,” she said, “you can eat in here.”
He rose to his feet and took the offering.
“No thank you maam. You’ve been kind enough and I’ll just move along. Thank you so much and may God bless you.”
He opened the door and slipped back into the cold air. I stood behind the eight-foot windows that stretched from the living room floor to just two feet from the ceiling. Through the condensation that covered the thin pane of glass I watched the stranger. He descended the porch stairs, opened the gate and walked north on Green Street. Within moments, he was out of view.
I was saddened by this event. We were of modest means. Some might even have considered us poor, but we always had food to eat and a roof over our heads. I had never known poverty nor witnessed it before. Yet, here it had been, right in my living room. I didn’t know quite how to respond.
I prayed. I asked God to help that poor stranger. I promised God that if he would make that man a millionaire then I would become a priest. All he had to do, I thought, would be to send Michael Anthony, the Millionaire’s executive secretary to the stranger. The Millionaire was a weekly television series during the fifties. Each week, John Beresford Tipton, a wealthy philanthropist would select a person in need, usually one who was down in their luck. He would dispatch Anthony who would present the recipient with a cashier’s check for one million dollars. The millionaire changed lives in a moment. That happened every week on television. Why couldn’t it happen to the stranger who had entered my life so briefly? Like most seven or eight year olds at the time, I didn’t know that the popular television show was simply fiction.
In the ensuing years, I would think of that incident occasionally. I don’t know what ever happened to the stranger. Did he get back on his feet? Did he find work? Did he die alone and poor with no one to care for him? Did he become a millionaire? I hope the latter didn’t happen because I’m married now with three children. I don’t think God would want me as a priest.
As I’ve grown, my faith has grown also. Somehow, in my heart I believe God has taken care of the stranger, if not in this life then in the next.
I’m grateful to that tall, thin man who entered my life one cold afternoon so many years ago. He allowed me to see a generous, sympathetic side of my normally pugnacious and argumentative Irish mother. He gave me a memory of her that I still hold dear today. His brief visit and my mother’s response also instilled in me a sympathetic heart towards those in need.
On that day, over fifty years ago, a stranger received a gift of two sandwiches, an apple, a container of milk, and a dose of compassion from my mother. Little did he know that I would receive an even more precious, wonderful and enduring gift from him.
Thank you stranger.