Holy Places

 I met Tony for the first time on the jewish holiday called Tashlikh which means casting off. We walk to the local river on the afternoon of the first day and empty our pockets into the river, symbolically casting off our sins. Now we don’t empty our wallets or pocket change, but we put small pieces of bread and pebbles in our pockets to cast off. This Sunday afternnon, Tony was camped out down by the river front, in a lean-to made from an old tarp and some wood he had scraped together. He had the customary shopping cart with all his worldly possessions, and there was evidence of vain attempts to start a bon fire. To see 14 men down at the river bank throwing bread from their pockets into the water must have caused Tony to think he had drunk some bad wine! I saw him out of the corner of my eye as he approached us.’It’s Rosh Hashanah already?” he said. ‘I lose track of time out here.” The rest of my group got that “Oh No” look on their faces, the kind of look people in the city have when they step over or around the homeless people laying on the street and hope the person doesn’t speak to them. I found this ironic. He we are cleansing our souls, throwing away our sins, and we are about to commit a fresh one, turning our back on a brother who is in need. Jewish law dictates that charity begins at home. I lingered around Tony’s home as others left briskly.I’m Joel, I said, introducing myself as I reached out my hand. Tony looked stunned. He said ” Oh you don’t want to shake this, I haven’t washed in a while.” I humbly put my hand back in my pocket and took the opportunity I had long awaited for.Tony couldn’t say his own name since his front teeth fell out. They were rotten so it didn’t take much to knock them out from their sockets. Just like his life had turned out.Knocked out from its socket. His clothing stuck to him like paste, because he had worn them too long. He smelled like a combination of an outhouse, stale whiskey, and ammonia from the body odor that hadn’t been washed away in weeks. We talked for a little while, there on the riverbank.The last time he remembered having a shower was when he was arrested for sleeping in the park, and the kind jail guard let him have a shower before he left the cell block the next day. He still had to put on his old clothes though, and it felt like trying to dress in wet cardboard. This was Tony’s life. Thony is what he called himself as his tongue exits through the gap where his front teeth used to be. He is happy to tell you about his front teeth. He says their loss was the beginning of his journey to homelessness. I stayed back against the strong advice of my companions in order to get to know Tony better. I was drawn to him. Here was a fellow jew, in trouble, and I felt it was better to reach out now than to go back to Temple to pray for him. Tony had grown up not far from here, in the suburbs of New Jersey. “I was working class poor” he said as he offered me a can of something unknown as the label had washed off in the rain. I accepted it to be polite, and non chalantly put it down on the ground next to me where we sat. ” My mother was a waitress, my father was a bastard.” With that he let out a loud, sad laugh, as if hoping the humor he was forcing would penetrate the sadness that exhaled from his body. “He left us pretty early, my brother and I. My mother did her best, and I respected that. We made do. But we stopped going to Temple because she was embarrassed that she couldn’t dress us properly and most of the time she had to work anyway.” Tony looked out to the river as if comtemplating how much more he was going to tell me, a perfect stranger. ” So as time went on, my mother started getting lonely I guess and brought boyfriends home. My brother and I hated all of them before we even saw them. We started staying away from the house a lot of the time. You know, young guns out on the streets with no dad to come find them, bring them home and ground them. One day we showed up at home, a little drunk and a little stoned and her latest boyfriend decided he was going to be our father and steer us in the right direction. Tony paused again and I thought I saw him tear up. I looked away as I didn’t want to embarrass him. He steered my brother right into the wall and me across the room with his fist in my mouth. Tony showed me his missing front teeth as if I had not noticed the big black hole until now. I acted like I hadn’t. You see, my mother didn’t have money for dentists. She barely had enough money to put food in our mouths let alone fix our teeth. They just came shooting out, right down the back of my throat. I swallowed them. Tony burst out laughing, a laugh longer than it should have been.I wondered if he was getting nervous with me being there and sharing this debriefing with him.There was a long silence between us. I thought for a moment it might be time for me to move on, and I moved a little bit in an effort to get myself up from a position no 45 year old with bad knees should have put himself in. It had started to rain. “Hey Tony” I said before I realized I had said it. “Why don’t you come back to temple with me and we can have a nice meal afterwards, get out of the rain, and talk some more” “You mean like this” he asked, putting his arms out wide as if to present himself to the world as what he was; a smelly scary looking homeless person. “Come on Tony, let’s go” You can imagine what happened when I appeared back to the services with Tony alongside me. He sat at the back. I sat back up front with my family, where he insisted I go. Occasionally I would look back over my shoulder and saw Tony following all the rituals correctly. His faith had abandoned him but he had not drifted far from his roots. No one sat next to Tony, and those who were there moved hurriedly to another location. I assumed it was his appearance and his body odor. Afterwards, Tony remained seated, probably enjoying the warmth and shelter I had invited him into, for as long as he could get it. The Rabbi asked me to ensure Tony moved on, and as I sent my family home ahead of me, I took Tony out to dinner. After he had been hit by another step father in the house, Tony and his brother left to sleep at a friends house. The mother saw the blood and injuries on both the boys and they ended up in foster care. ” I thought my mother was poor” he said as he swirled his tongue around the aged empty gap in his mouth.The state had no money to fix my teeth either.” Tony was separated from his brother in homes only willing to take one young troubled jewish boy. He didn’t see him again. Fifteen foster homes later, Tony found himself out on the streets after he had aged out of the system. There were no parents for him if there was no money to pay them. Drugs and alcohol had helped ease his transition into adolescence and young adulthood. He got series of jobs here and there, nothing to make a career out of. He insists his physical appearance cost him opportunities. ” The only job I might have been able to make any money at would have been boxing ’cause I have the look. Just not the body for it.” He laughed out loud again. I liked Tony. There was something big brotherly about him. It was hard to say how old he was exactly, I assumed homelessness and hard living had taken a toll and he probably looked twenty years older than he was. Tony had lived in shelters, cars, cardboard boxes, and a few times had found jobs long enough to rent small apartments but he never made enough money to get ahead of the rent. He had girlfriends, but the girls he met in his part of town only served to keep him poorer and with more heartbreak. “I’ve sworn off women” he said, as he finished his meal and headed back to the river. I had a dog once, I loved that dog, but the dog catcher came and took him away from me. They said he wasn’t licensed. I didn’t have the money to license him. I thought about breaking him of the place, but I have gotten by this far without being a criminal and just didn’t want to start that. So I prayed my dog would find a better home, something indoors maybe. Tony looked the saddest I had seen him all day. We walked quietly back to his riverfront home, and with more guilt than I felt comfortable, I left him there. “See you next week” he said as he bedded down for another night rough sleeping. Tony joined me the following week at Temple. The Rabbi took me aside and said his presence was disturbing people and he had to leave.The rabbi has told me that people do not want to sit next to him and some feel afraid. He said that people have complained he smells. Tony had washed up in the bathroom earlier and they complained about that too. After the service, I walked Tony out and tried to find a way to uninvite him to the Temple. This felt wrong. Hypocritical. Sick. I know what the Torah says and what Isaiah says about treating the homeless in our midst and it certainly isn’t send them out because they are scary looking and smelly. I respected Tony and so I told him what the Rabbi said, at the same time letting him know I would be his advocate and we would work this out. We went out for what I didn’t know was out last meal together. Tony ended up comforting me. ” Why is there such inequality in the world?” I lamented. “Why does God make some people poor, some rich, some wise and some evil, some happy and some sad?” I intended this to be a rhetorical question but Tony had an answer. “God said who will then guard kindness and truth”. He bit big into a hamburger. Talking with his mouth full, he continued.” If everyone had all they need, then how would kindess fit into my world?” He swallowed. “I am poor so the rich have an opportunity to give to me. I am a happy person and I have the opportunity to cheer you up. The smart people can teach the not so smart people. We all suffer so that others can be able to give.” Tony gulped down the rest of his milkshake. He stood up, shook my hand, and said he had to get back to his camp before dark. “We’ll see each other again” he smiled, and we walked together in silence back to the riverbank. I had offered Tony help. Financial help, to stay with my family until he could get back on his feet. He declined. He was happy where he was and grateful we had met. A few weeks passed and I found myself drawn back to the riverbank to check on Tony. He was gone. All that remained was the black woody circle of a bonfire and some scraps of wood he probably couldn’t carry with him. I never saw him again. I felt deeply and truly that he had great wisdom and had great gifts to give the world. But sadly, the world would not listen to him. There is a tremendous amount of denial out there about who is homeless and who the homeless used to be or could have been. In my growing appreciation for the homeless, I have come to believe that people living on the street have a lot to offer us; profound insights gleaned as we process our experience with them. Although they are not intentionally our teachers and most likely don’t realize the insight into life they offer, they can offer us deep understandings about life. These poor souls, poor economically but rich culturally and spiritually andhumanly, taught me a profound lesson. When we look for God, we don’t have to look in churches or synagogues. The most holy places are not where we traditionally think they are. The holy places are the shelters where we house the homeless, thesoup litchens where we offer them a warm meal, the street corners where we stop and talk to the panhandler, or bend down to make sure someone who is passed out is safe and ok. The holy places are the spaces we give the homeless to store their things. The holy places are the abandoned campsites where we have made a friend.
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