Me and Mr. Jones: On Being Pulled Out of My Comfort Zone

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.

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24 comments

  1. Hi Lily,

    Good for you. I’ve met people who slipped through the education system when they were young and have found their way through the world without being able to decipher its letters. They’re often dyslexic and were, in England, hit for not ‘paying attention’ in English class. They learned to survive, when they reach their 50s, it’s often a wish to read bedtime stories to grandchildren that sparks a wish to learn.

    Mr Jones must have gravitated towards the kindness in you. And he chose well.

    I’m not sure that many people tell us ‘the truth’. Mr Jones is telling you enough and that’s enough. Whether he wants company and is actually a Pulitzer prize winning author, it doesn’t matter. The truth is that he needs kind, non-judgemental human interaction and this is the way to get it (I don’t actually think that he’s inventing illiteracy – I just mean it doesn’t matter if he is).

    The library and your time with Mr Jones are like time spent in a foreign country. They exist outside your ordinary life. Like any foreign country, there’ll come a time to leave.

    Having experience of diabetes, could I offer a solution if he arrives another day with very low blood sugar? If you keep a small carton of unsweetened fruit juice in your bag, that should give him a quick boost and bring him back to himself. Is he able to test his blood sugar while he’s living on the streets?

    All best wishes

    Elaine

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that’s exactly what happened to him – slipping through the system because he is dyslexic and grew up in a time when teachers weren’t aware of this and he wasn’t able to get extra help. He says that eventually, the teachers just started to pass him because they were tired of dealing with him. I think he may have ADD as well. I explained it to him recently and he was amazed because the symptoms I described were very familiar to him, but he’d never heard of ADD before. He has an excellent vocabulary and speaks well.

      Thanks for the tip about fruit juice! I wasn’t sure what would be best to give him that wouldn’t shock his system so that’s helpful to know. I know that he’s able to get insulin/medication even though he is on the streets. I’m not sure if he checks his blood sugar. BUT a few days ago he got a job as a cook at a local restaurant. I’m not sure how long it will be before he gets some kind of paycheck from them, but hopefully having a job will make him eligible to apply for housing assistance and he can get into some sort of housing program soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading through your story. It is very nice of you that you help Mr. Jones, and I think that it really makes you a good person, someone who cares and is not judgmental about his life situation, or the fact that he is unable to read. I myself have a lot of experience with teaching people threatened by the “system”, which only cares about those who are the best. Every one of us knows – and you point it out when you say that you don’t judge people because you don’t know their story – that life is not easy and only a handful of bad experiences can take you down in a highly unforgiving environment. I personally don’t understand how it is even possible that people survive in bigger cities with the burden of mortgages or rents that are so high that once you slip you find yourself on the street. But thanks to people like you, they can recover, learn, and even start over. I will be looking forward to hear how your relationship with Mr. Jones develops.

    Like

    1. Thank you so much for reading and sharing. I agree with you that it’s easy to sit and judge people, but the reality is that many “successful” people are only a few bad choices or bits of bad luck away from being in the same position. I don’t know exactly how Mr. Jones got to where he is now, but that doesn’t matter. What I see is that he is actively pursuing a better life now and that’s something I can get behind no matter what his past is.

      Like

  3. i love
    what a great story
    what a great experiance
    what a big heart you have
    you were in the right place at the right time
    excited to hear more about your time with mr jones
    sending you a fb msg in a sec
    proud of you

    Like

  4. The best I read today. Speaks volumes about how kind ur heart is. And how u r making an effort to come out of ur comfort zone and helping him and urself too.. U r doing it right. Would love to hear more ..
    Cheers
    Sup

    Like

  5. Beautiful post. I am in a very similar situation with a 11-year-old girl, with a group of people taking care of her in another way telling me I’m doing the wrong thing, but my heart, my intuition and my psychologist telling me I’m doing the right thing, encouraging me to go on. And yet, as you said, there are so many dynamics involved, I am aware the situation is extremely delicate and I’m totally out of my comfort zone.
    Good luck to us both, may love always guide us. 🙂

    Like

    1. Wow. I imagine that would be even more complex with a child because they need an adult to depend on. It’s easier (though still a challenge) to create boundaries with another adult because I have to be able to set healthy limits on what I can do for him. With a child, they genuinely need someone to take care of them, so it must be difficult to figure out how to help and what you should and shouldn’t be doing. I will keep you in my prayers.

      Liked by 1 person

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