By Joe Cunningham
(I meant to publish something else today I wrote a while ago, but then I found this.)
My father saved my life once, and he doesn’t even know it.
One day in college, I was day dreaming about childhood memories when a certain episode of my past began to glow with never before seen importance.
My father once worked for the Bishop’s chancery downtown overseeing the help for handicapped people. I and my siblings grew up getting hugged by smelly, large, deformed people who always had a way of transmitting joy despite the physical “ick.” And we helped a lot of homeless people, my father and I. Dad never missed an opportunity to give a homeless guy his bag lunch or whatever he had at the time: half-bruised apples that were “still good,” a roll of crackers, hot dog rolls (why were those in the car?). We never had much money and they used that for “drinking, smoking, and drugs,” Dad explained.
“People down here lead very hard lives,” he said; so we helped them however we could, but couldn’t give them any money.
I think my Dad knew every homeless guy in Syracuse. Sometimes they would show up at the dinner table at home. Mom would be on edge the whole time. There was a particular middle aged African American man there once that had a Creole accent and rambled on from story to story with such agility, throwing in a loud “Mighty fine” or a “thank you very much Ma’am” every time Mom walked by. It looked like she was on pins and needles. Mom was as charitable as Dad, just more cautious about strangers being in the house.
I remember one time in the city in particular when my father left me outside on a bright spring day to talk to a man who had lost his legs getting run over by a truck while he was sleeping in an alley in the wintertime. The homeless man seemed cheerful enough, like it had happened long enough ago and he had gotten over it as much as something like that can be gotten over. It was an awkward five minutes but soon Dad was back with a cup of coffee from his office’s break room with the usual large smile on his face. The expression on the homeless, legless man’s face was noticeably brighter as we walked away. Dad wasn’t one for throwing his kids into life-lessons; they just came as we went. Coffee made smelly gray haired guys happy – check.
And then there was this man: homeless I’m sure, and I can’t remember a particular time my Dad did him a favor in my presence, though I’m one hundred percent sure he did something. I can’t remember his name, but for all intents and purposes his name was Roger.
Roger was probably forty: brown hair, always dirty stubble on his face and the usual stink that comes from being forty and not taking a shower since God knows when. He was a little overweight (strange, right?), hand-me-down clothes, blank stare, quiet. Nice as my Dad was, there was a language homeless people used among their own that they didn’t open up to anybody else. The most you could get out of one of the talkative ones was their pitiful life story and then a plug for a buck. Not happening.
It happened on a Sunday. We went to St. Lucy’s Catholic Church: a dirty, slum town church we left when I was still a kid. There was guitar music and lots of kids, lots of poor people, and the group homes came with all the smiling handicapped people. It was a lively Mass; I was both weirded out and felt at home. Despite the unease, I felt the other kids in my posh Catholic elementary were missing out on something necessary for childhood: I believe I understood right then that you didn’t know the world until you looked under what people called the gutter and found the goodness in it – the whole “diamond in the rough” thing from Aladdin.
After church services we would all run down to coffee hour, or as we kids preferred to call it, “coffee and donuts,” with the emphasis on the “donuts” part. My favorites were the chocolate-covered “whatever you call it’s.” Sometimes there was juice. Other times there was not.
“Never leave the coffee hour room,” Mom said. It was a golden rule, or bronze, or whatever came after “Love thy neighbor” and all that. It was a very hard rule to follow (it was always packed to the brim) but I followed it to a “T.” A week without television would be hell and was worth getting tagged in tag, not playing outside with the big kids, and whatever other horrors there were.
There was only one time I left the room. That was when I was selling coupon books for school and saw one of the poor neighborhood kids watch me receive twenty bucks from one of the parishioners and pocket it. I would turn it in later. Mom was there. She must have thought it would be good for me to learn responsibility. I put it in her purse anyway. Moments later I heard a voice and felt small hands bigger than mine grab my arms from behind and a hard object press in between my shoulder blades. I laughed, probably because I knew where this could go and didn’t have the money anymore. I was pushed into a room down the hall.
“Give me the twenty dollars,” growled the voice. He reached into my pocket and I laughed again. There was nothing in there of course. He released me and I turned around. It was the poor kid wearing a frustrated face and that nasty thin pony tail tied with a rubber band. I thought he had had a weapon, but he was holding just his own fingers. I never told my Mom til after I remembered this story in college. It just didn’t occur to be of any importance at the time. I returned to the coffee room, unscathed and in good humor.
That fateful Sunday Dad took me out of the room. I think we were going to use the bathroom or something, but I don’t remember having to go when it happened. Maybe we had already gone or Dad just wanted to talk to someone outside because I remember him talking to someone and I was just standing outside and around the corner, like a dog that suddenly stops following his master and stands there dumbfounded.
I remember looking up and seeing three people staring at me slouched against the wall opposite me. It was a dead end: one was on my left at the impasse and the other two a little to my right. The two people on the right smiled at me. They were tall, a bit fat, and dirty. The one to the left I recognized. It was Roger. He had a different look on his face: thoughtful, and a little bit weary of something; or smiling with a hint of that – I can’t remember, but it was different from the other two, it must have been.
It only took a moment, what they said. For a second I saw into their private world where they actually talked to each other, like best friends, as equals and, in a way, wiser than the rest of us “rich people.” I think it was a woman: one of the two standing a little to my right. She cracked open the smile on her hairy face and spoke forwards but to Roger, never taking her beady eyes off of me. I don’t think that now I will ever forget what they said.
“What about this one?” she asked. Roger was staring at me too but in a different way.
“No, not this one,” he said. And that was all.
I stood there, in all naïveté, for what seemed like an hour, but was probably three to five minutes, recording everything: copying it in my mind, unknowingly erasing the original footage and placing the copied tape deep into my mind for that daydream day in university when I would shiver over the weight of each of those words; until I felt my father’s hand take mine, and I never saw those three people again.
He led me back into the warm room of coffee and donuts and too many people, my mother’s eyes, and safety. It was probably near time to go and we must have piled into the station wagon, wood trimmed, rusted, and all: myself in the back seat with Lucy, my older sister. I must have stared out the large back window, both of us pointing our tongues out at the cars behind and giving them pig-nosed snubs, laughing, and hiding under the seat when our two vehicles met awkwardly at a red light. The family cars would change: some broke down, others came when the family grew; and I in a blur grew out of care-free adolescence and my quiet, frustrating, and rebellious teens; until college and the move to Ireland, and that fateful day of recollection. All in all, what stood out as I remembered was my Father. He is a good man, my dad – like no one else – and everyone knew it. And Roger knew it.