I meet Mr. Jones at the public library. I am browsing the shelves, passing time until one of my students meets me for a tutoring session.
“Excuse me,” says a man, stepping into the aisle beside me “I’m so sorry, but I wondered if you could help me.”
“What do you need?” I ask.
“I’m trying to fill out a job application, but I can’t read and write very well. Do you think you could help me?”
“Yes,” I say. “I can do that.”
I follow him to a desk where he points to a paper job application and hands me a pen. I sit down and start quizzing him. “Name? Address? Position you’re applying for? Previous work experience?”
He stumbles over the address question. “Hmmm…I don’t think she will want me to use her address anymore,” he mutters to himself. “Let me think on that.”
As we work our way through the application, he has questions for me too. “What’s your name?” he asks. I tell him.
“Ms. Dunn, Ms. Dunn,” he repeats. Then, “You don’t seem like you’re afraid of me.”
“Why would I be afraid of you?”
“I don’t know. I’m a stranger, walking up to you in the library, asking for your help.”
“We’re in a public place,” I said. “You’ve been very respectful. I’m not afraid.”
He seems satisfied with that.
“Ms. Dunn, how old do you think I am?” he asks me.
I study his face for clues and find myself perplexed by the evidence. His hair is going white, but his skin is smooth and unwrinkled, the color of rich, dark chocolate. His teeth are white and straight. His clothes are old-fashioned, but meticulously clean.
“Maybe around fifty?” I hazard a guess.
“Would you believe that I am sixty years old?” he says. I tell him he looks much younger.
“I guess you think it’s kind of a pathetic. How does a man get to be 60 years old without knowing how to read and write?” he says.
“You never know what’s happened in someone else’s life to bring them to where they are today,” I tell him. “I try not to judge people too quickly.”
He says, “I wonder, Ms. Dunn, if you would teach me read and write.”
“I would love to do that,” I say.
A few days later, we meet at the library again. Today, there aren’t any tables free, so we pull two chairs up to a windowsill and sit in the afternoon sunlight.
I write the first 10 letters of the alphabet on an index card. We go over the sound that each letter makes.
A few minutes into our lesson, he stops me. “Ms. Dunn, I have to tell you something,” he says. “I want to be honest with you. The truth is, I’m actually homeless,” he says, watching my face.
“I thought you might be,” I admit.
“But you’re not worried about that?” he asks. “You’ve never asked me if I can pay you or anything like that.”
“I’m not worried about it,” I tell him.
His face lights up. “I was talking to God this morning,” he tells me. “And I told him, ‘God, I think maybe you let me meet Ms. Dunn for a reason.’ “
“I think maybe that’s true,” I say.
The next time I meet Mr. Jones, he is distracted. The library is being renovated and the only place we can find to sit is in the middle of the first floor lobby. People are walking in and out, and he has walked miles across town to get to me. He has diabetes, and I can tell that something is off with his blood sugar.
He was bright and alert when he arrived, but now that he’s sitting down and resting, the exertion and the lack of proper food are hitting him. He is trying to concentrate, but his eyes keep slipping closed, even as he talks to me.
We make our way through the rest of the alphabet, but he is out of it. I give him a down blanket, some oranges, and a pair of wool socks. We decide that next time we meet we will find a place with fewer distractions.
That night it storms and I lay in my bed listening the rain and praying that Mr. Jones is somewhere warm and dry.
A week later we meet again. This time, we read together. He sounds his way through the first few BOB books. We read about Peg and Ted and their pet pig and hen. He asks about my husband, something he does every time we speak, and he tells me he is sorry he was so out of it the last time we met. That he’d walked too far that day and his body was shutting down.
I bring a pack of sugar-free gum and a box of peanut butter crackers. We talk about the trees that are blooming now and the greenish yellow pollen that’s settled over everything. We talk about Korea and what’s up with Kim Jeong-Un anyway? We talk about how he became such a high-functioning illiterate by memorizing the way certain words looked the way you might learn the name of a painting. We make a plan to meet again next week.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
I walk a tightrope between trust and self-protection with every interaction. I don’t know if this man is telling me the truth or not, but I choose to believe that he is. Everyone has a story. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of. For some people, those choices just come with more obvious consequences than others
I am not a noble person. I am out of my comfort zone here. Way out. Most days I would prefer not to set up a meeting. I would prefer not to navigate that blurry boundary between meeting a real need and taking away a man’s dignity, between loving the downtrodden and treating him like a charity case. There are so many dynamics at work here and I am painfully conscious of them. I do not want to be a naïve, privileged white girl who thinks she can swoop in and fix a problem that has been years, even generations, in the making. But I can’t ignore this man while I claim to believe in a God who chooses the poor, the sick, and the needy.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing here, big picture. I just know that each time we meet, I walk away a little brighter. Mr. Jones applies to jobs every few days. He tells me, “I think things are gonna change soon, Ms. Dunn. I just gotta stay positive,” and the pessimist in me marvels.
“I think God brought us together for a reason,” he says again and again
I can’t help but think he’s right.