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Billy

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Occasionally the most ordinary events end up challenging us to do “the right thing.” We all have regrets over opportunities lost, but this time I did all I could – or did I?

I ride the bus downtown every morning with a throng of high school kids in addition to other city workers. On this day we disembarked and prepared for our daily walk up the hill, they to the high school and I to my job at the courthouse, when I overheard an individual on the corner asking one of the students if he knew where the homeless shelter was. I carefully made my way around the stranger and averted my eyes. Homeless people are a problem in my city. They panhandle; sometimes aggressively, and usually smell. But then I stopped and looked at him. He was a young man, near the age of my son. Although scruffily dressed, he was clean and well groomed. His only luggage was a plastic grocery store bag that had split, threatening to spill its contents.

I told him the shelter was just a little beyond my workplace and invited him to walk with me. He told me his name was Billy, and he was 27. His home was a town 45 minutes away. He had been adopted as a tiny child but didn’t get along with his family. He had found his birth mother on the Internet and had met her. The night before he claimed to have walked 50 miles from another town, and that all his money had been stolen. These are common stories from the homeless, and they may or may not have been true. He claimed to be 27 years old, but his mind was as clear and naïve as a boy of 16 or 17.

He said he had wanted to join the Marines but they demanded a high-school diploma and he had only a GED. He talked about his desire to travel to Las Vegas, and then he talked about finding a job and getting an efficiency apartment. About halfway up the hill he stopped at a row of paper boxes and took a selection of apartment finder flyers.

When we reached the top of the hill I pointed out the shelter and then continued across the street, but Billy had troubled me. I watched him sitting on a bus bench examining his apartment flyers, and knew if I left him like that it would be a regret that I’d carry forever. I called across the street, “one more thing,” and asked if he was hungry. He replied, “a little bit,” so I asked if he’d let me buy him breakfast.

My courthouse has an excellent cafeteria, and many people eat there daily. Most of us know each other as we all work together, so there was a fair amount of curiosity about my new young friend. I appropriated a new plastic bag to replace the one that had split, and then I hovered protectively while introducing him to a friend at the grill who was serving up her famous French toast. Billy had the morning special with both bacon and sausage. We also added toast, hash browns, yogurt, orange juice, coffee and an extra muffin. I paid with a ten-dollar bill and left the change on his tray. Settling him in front of television news, he looked up pitifully and asked, “Do you have to go?”

Before going on to work I urged him to be very careful, not to trust anyone, and to consider going home; you know, the “mama talk.” At the time it wasn’t hard to walk away as I felt I’d done all I could for him, but now I can’t get him out of my mind.

I think of the dangerous path he’s on and cringe, remembering his innocence. When I get off the bus in the morning I look for him, and now I scan the sidewalks in case he’s there. All I can do is pray for his safety, but I have little faith in answered prayer. Experience has taught me that God often doesn’t concern itself with individuals. It’s up to us to take care of each other, for if we don’t nobody else will. Billy is of an age with my children, and I miss them; maybe that’s why he touched me so deeply. I may no longer believe, but because I’m helplessness to do otherwise I remind God daily of Billy’s need, and devoutly hope my prayer is heard.

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