Thomas always stands on 9th and Clement in the afternoon. He and his red shopping cart piled high with strange containers and blankets and, usually, bottles of Coke. I always wonder, is it old Coke? Is it still bubbly? Thomas loves Coke.
Usually, he paces and talks to himself, pivots, and does it again. But I’ve been wondering lately if he’s not really talking to himself. I’ve been thinking he talks to God. At least that’s what he tells me. His gray and black dreads fall down his back. His smile has only one top tooth left in it. How long has he lived on Clement street, scouting the trash cans in front of the mass of Chinese restaurants for leftovers each night?
Twenty years, ago, he met Jesus. He told me so at the corner of Clement and 12th one afternoon this past summer, when the boys and I walked by after the park. By then, August and I remembered Thomas’ name. By then Thomas smiled when he saw us. But maybe he always smiled when he saw us, even before we knew his name. Thomas is that way: a gentle soul. Perhaps that’s why August has always remembered to notice him, why August makes sure we check with him when we pass him by.
That day when he told me about Jesus, I said, “Me too! I know Jesus too.”
“So you’re a sister!” Thomas said and clapped his hands. Pure joy. I asked him if he had a church.
“Oh, yes. Star of the Sea,” he said. “Mass every Sunday.” And once I started paying attention, I knew it was true. Star of the Sea is near our house. We pass every Sunday on our way to church and every Sunday at 8:30 am, there is Thomas’ red shopping cart packed full of containers and blankets, sitting by itself out front. Thomas is inside.
Today he’s in his afternoon spot. “Hi Thomas,” I say, stopping next to the Walgreens.
“Oh! Don’t you look nice today!” Thomas says. I have not showered. Or done more than stick my hair in a bun on the top of my head. No makeup. But he’s so convinced I look lovely that I believe him.
“Thanks. That’s pretty nice to hear.”
“What are you doing today?” he says.
“I’m just going to a coffee shop to work on my computer for a while.
“Oh, good for you. You deserve to take care of yourself!”
I smile. “What about you? How are you today?”
“Oh, I’m just fellowshipping with the Lord. That’s what I do with my day: Fellowshipping with the Lord.”
And I look at him and think of the Desert Fathers. Maybe Thomas is a modern day Desert Father, waiting for miraculous bread, living by prayer alone. Instead of a cave, he dwells with his shopping cart along this road packed with people. Of course, the Desert Fathers chose their lives. I don’t know Thomas’ story, but I imagine he didn’t want this. Yet still, his joy is near-holy. A Desert Father, I think, then remember what St. Benedict called “the work of God.”
Hurry to the work of God, Benedict said in his Rule.
Thomas blesses me with some mumbled phrase about God I can’t understand and then he adds. “You can take that to the bank!”
“I will!” And then, before I walk on, I add, “Thomas, you need anything today? Some water?”
“Nope,” he says. “But I’d love a Coke.” He smiles his gummy grin.
“I’ll find one for you.”
And I do. But I’m a mom so I get him an even bigger bottle of water, just in case he decides to drink both. I really hope he drinks both.
Then he returns to his work. I return to mine.
Photo Credit: The Wandering Angel on Flickr