My car idled in the drive-through. Coffee was on the way. I was mentally preparing for a meeting when he just showed up in the rearview mirror. Late-afternoon sunlight lit a red tangle of hair. Something in the way he moved spoke of difficulty—of mind or body, it was impossible to tell.
As he fished in the restaurant’s designer trash can it occurred to me that he was being careful about it. No napkins caught the wind; no cups tumbled to the ground. He extracted an aluminum can. Perhaps this was a regular route, and the franchise manager gave conditional permission to hit the garbage bins provided the gypsy merchant did not leave a mess.
My eyes moved to the change in the ashtray and then back to the young man sifting the trash for change. What industry—imagine, to dumpster-dive in broad daylight only 20 feet from the badges of SUVs. I wondered if I would do what he was doing. Would my pride prevent me?
Could I pull out of line? Offer him money? Would that turn out to be more trouble than it was worth?
Could I somehow mention Jesus to him? Which words would be the right words?
I watched him walk to the next can. He held a pop-stained backpack by the top loop. One of his legs couldn’t quite keep up with the other one. My van sat trapped in line as he disappeared around the corner. I asked God to bless him in a way suited to his needs and went back to my meeting agenda.
The line of cars cleared the corner of the McBuilding and aimed for the interstate ramp. But look! There he was again across the parking lot. Now he had a vehicle . . . a homemade three-wheeler with a big compartment to haul his treasure. Surprised at myself, I stopped 30 feet from him and got out. Most of that ground was covered before he noticed me. “Red” looked a little worried to see a man in business attire approach him directly.
“Hi there.” His eyes were bright blue and there was a question in them. “Good for you to work so hard. I think that what you are doing is good.” He looked at me and nodded three or four times.
“My name is Tom. What’s your name?” He spoke, but the sounds from his throat just spun as if the words he wanted to say wouldn’t catch. He patted his coat and found a wallet. Opening it carefully, he held up its plastic window with a photo ID card so I could read his name and address. It struck me that he had probably been forced to do this before. No doubt he thought I was challenging his right to be on the street collecting cans.
“Here is some money to add to your cans.” I held it out. “And here is something to read when you get home.” I held out a little book of daily devotions. “These are prayers to Jesus.” He nodded with energy, not taking his eyes off of mine. I put the bill in for a bookmark. “Good-bye.” I repeated his name. “God bless you.”
He tucked the booklet into his backpack. I climbed back into my ride as he stood next to his. Surely I was an important man on my way to an important appointment! The late sun lighted the corn-stubble red as he pedaled off to his.
“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10).
Living Hope Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE