There but for the grace of God …

Just before heading off for the class I teach, I’m sitting in front of Malaprop’s, drinking a coffee and reading Some Can Whistle. In just minutes, I’m panhandled by a kid who looks too young to be panhandling. For whatever reason, I’m feeling expansive and give him the change in my pocket — change I’d intended to use to buy a sandwich later on. It was quite a bit of change, actually.

I go back to my reading, when I see a man — a short, small man — staggering down the street, carrying a bag. He plops down on the chair next to mine and says, “I won’t lie to you. I’m a little drunk.”

Since my serenity has already been shattered, I allow him to engage me in conversation of sorts — but only on his terms, which aren’t so clear. We talk; he keeps nodding off. I’m wondering if it’s me or the wine that’s zoning him out. I think it must be me. I’ve grown so dull lately. I ask him his age (he looks to be about 70). He tells me. I feel undone: He’s only one year older than me.

At this point, I hear the angels singing, “There but for the grace of God go you, Billy Boy.” It’s true. He’s sad and pathetic, but maybe he’s me in reflection — or maybe he’s Jesus come back to Earth to test my own level of humanity. You know, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”

He tells me he’s waiting for a bus, sees one coming, staggers to his feet, and rushes to the curb. The bus whizzes by him and stops down at the end of the block. “That’s where the bus stop is,” I tell him. “You’ll have to go down there to catch the bus.” He doesn’t seem to care. He sits back down and looks at me with watery, shifting eyes.

A lovely woman walks past, and we both look at her. I realize he’s probably thinking the same thing I am. We are both, after all, men — drunk or sober. By this time, I’m seeing a lot more of my reflection in him than I care to. I’m only a single ticket away from the same Saint. Vituss dance he’s been doing for years. The homily repeats itself: There but for the grace of God … . And maybe he’s thinking the same thing, looking at me. I’m no better, he’s no worse — we’re cut from the same cloth. He simply took one turn and I took another at the fork of the road of life, but ain’t we come to the same place at this point in time? And doesn’t that speak volumes about life, and who we are and who we’re not?

I read some more while he weaves in and out of his Dali-like world. We speak in fragments. At one point he wants to shake my hand. We talk and fall silent, and stare at the world around us. I drink my coffee; he has a bottle of wine in his bag. It’s a strange way to carry on a conversation, but I don’t mind it as much as I might, had someone told me beforehand this was going to happen.

He’s not a bad guy, but I realize he’s not me either, in many respects. And we probably don’t, in the end, have that much in common — even though a week, a month, a year from now, I could be wearing his shoes and he mine.

At last I finish my coffee, as evening descends in lovely purple glow, flecked with the gold remnants of a shattered sun. It’s time to go. I’ve a class to teach to people who are not drunk — except, perhaps, on the words of life, as I am. Maybe we all are (or maybe not).

[Bill Brooks is a local author. He also teaches in the creative writing program at A-B Tech.]

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