On the way home from work tonight I drove passed an elderly black man, carrying two heavy bags, and walking with a slight hinderance. I thought about pulling over and offering him a ride to his destination–I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere–but I continued on to the on-ramp for HWY 31 S, drove back over the mountain, and started to turn toward home when I felt like I could have done something for the man.
I exited the highway a few blocks shy of my street and turned back toward downtown. I didn’t know if I would be able to find the man again, I had only seen him while stopped at a red light for a few moments…now, 10 minutes later, he could be anywhere. But, I drove back to where I saw him and made rounds up and down streets, about 4 blocks in all, until I came across him again.
I moved some personal items out of the passenger seat, pulled up beside him and rolled down my window: “Hey friend…need a ride?” He looked at me puzzled at first…I could tell he was trying to get a read on me…was I dangerous? Was I a cop? After he decided he would be better off in my car than hobbling down the street much longer, he accepted my offer.
He opened the door and placed his large bags in the floorboard. His white t-shirt and oversized blue jeans were drenched in sweat and he smelled rather…ripe. He had trouble climbing into my SUV (I soon found out he was 62 years old) and his wet jeans made the climb in cumbersome. After 3 failed attempts to climb in, he turned to me and said, “Hey man, pull me up.” So I took off my $250 sunglasses, unbuckled my seatbelt, and leaned over to grasp his sweat soaked arm & shirt to pull him up into the vehicle.
“Where ya going?” I asked. “To see my son…but I can’t get him on the phone. He was s’posed to meet me and put me up for the night…said I could sleep on the floor. Just take me a few blocks up and I’ll wait fo’ the bus to come.” “Alright,” I said. We drove a few blocks up, a very short 2 blocks to be exact, and he said I could drop him off here…I felt like I hadn’t helped him much…If I had picked him up when I first saw him, I could have saved him a mile or so…the two blocks seemed rather insignificant. I reached into my pocket and the only bill I had was a single dollar. I felt like that would be more of an insult than a benefit…”You in a hurry?” I asked…”Huh?” …”If you’re not in a hurry, let’s get you a few dollars for the night. I’ll go up a few blocks to an ATM.” “Yea yea…let’s go!” He was very excited about the idea of having some money in his pocket.
As we drove a few blocks to Wachovia, he told me his name was Jerry. He had grown up in Avondale, just outside the city. He was 62 and had two grown children. He was a war veteran, Vietnam, and had been staying a shelter for the past few nights that cost $25–a special for veterans. I told him my name was Ian. He began telling me a little bit more about his situation and then seemed very interested in my truck. “This a’ good truck…a real truck. My son had $40,000…told him to buy a good truck, a truck like this, and then he wouldn’t have to worry ’bout nothin…but he didn’t listen to me.” Most of his stories didn’t have a point to make…he was just making small talk. Glad to be riding and not walking. When we reached the ATM, I took out $100. I was careful not to let him see how much I withdrew, but I immediately handed him $20 and said “…here. You hang on to this.” He was very gracious.
I was on my way home to eat dinner when I first saw him, so food was on my mind. “Have you eaten anything…are you hungry?” I asked…”No..I mean, Yeah…I ain’t eaten nothing.” “What do you want? Anything…” I offered. “Chicken…let’s get some chicken. You know where Church’s is?” I didn’t. “No, tell me where to go.” He directed me about a mile further away from the “civilized” downtown that I typically stay in during my 9 hour days in the city for work..I normally don’t stray more than a few blocks from the heart of downtown. But, it was still daylight out, and the man was elderly. Between me and the 6″ serrated knife in my door panel, I wasn’t threatened by him.
We pulled into the drive through and I asked him what he wanted. “A two piece…with sum mashed potatoes…extra gravy….wait, no, that’s $5..uhm…” I could tell he didn’t want to spend the $21 dollars I had already given him on his dinner. “Don’t worry about the price…get whatever you want.” The most expensive thing on Church’s menu is about $8 so there wasn’t much harm in offering him the farm. “Uhm..then lemme get the shrimp. #8…with a Coke…no, wait….a Sprite…and mashed potatoes….with extra gravy.” I placed his order and we drove around to pick it up at the window. The total came to just over $8.
While we were waiting on his food I asked him where he was staying that night. “Well, I was supposed to stay wit my son but he won’t call me back.” I could tell he loved his son…he told me that his son took care of his mother, Jerry’s ex-wife, every day…checking on her and locking up her house for her at night. Jerry was thankful for this but I could tell his son wasn’t interested in helping his father too much and I saw the disappointment in Jerry’s face as he continued to tell me about his family.
I paid for his shrimp with a $20 and handed him the change back from the girl at the window…about $11. Jerry then counted the cash I had given him…he had about $32 at this point. “Well, I can stay at the shelter tonight. I can’t shower there but they’ll let me sleep for $25.” “Where do you stay when you’re not at the mission?” I asked. “Usually on the street…this one time I stayed in a motel though…it was $50.” Jerry told me. I asked him where that motel was…I didn’t think I’d have much of a chance trying to check him into the Marriott in his condition. “It’s just up the street there. The Tourway Inn…but it’s $50,” Jerry said. I told him not to worry about the room, just tell me how to get there. He directed me about half a mile back toward downtown and we pulled into the motel.
We went in and Jerry explained to the lady behind the bulletproof glass that “..my boy here is gunna put me up for the night. Big pimpin'”…that’s what he kept calling me, ‘Big Pimpin'” My truck and job, and the ability to take money out of an ATM made me a big shot in his world. The lady said the room would be $55. Jerry was immediately upset. “Las’ time it wuz only $50..why you trying to do Big Pimpin’ like that?” “Don’t worry about it, Jerry..it’s fine,” I said. I gave the lady three twenty dollar bills. When she gave me the $5 in change, I handed it to Jerry, “…here, hang on to this.” Jerry now had about $37.
He struggled to get back up into my truck and we drove across the lot to his room…room #132. He asked me if I liked to shoot pool, “Not really.” He then asked me if I liked to bowl. I found this a strange question because I had a hard time picturing this older, overweight man having the coordination to bowl. “Yes…I like bowling.” “Well, maybe we can go sometime. When my ship comes in, I’ma look you up, Big Pimpin! Have you got a number?” I didn’t want to give Jerry my main telephone number, nor one of my business cards, for fear that he would show up at my office. He only knew that I was an account manager for a technology firm. I gave him one of my secondary telephone numbers, my Google Voice number to be exact. I wrote it on a small piece of paper along with my first name, “Ian.”
Jerry plopped down out of my truck…shook my hand, twice, and continued thanking me for everything. He got his two bags, his shrimp box, and his Sprite out of the truck and then he asked me to give him “dap”…a term I was familiar with from high school…it’s black slang for the bumping together of fists, one on top of the other. So, I did.
After giving Jerry the initial $1, and then a $20 at the ATM, buying his Shrimp & Potatoes for about $8.50, giving him the change of about $11, paying for his $55 motel room and giving him the $5 change, I was wiped out. I remembered that I normally keep some cash under my cup holder for fast food. When I checked, I had a single $20. I gave it to Jerry and told him to be well. Jerry was happy to have a full meal, a safe place to sleep, and now, $57 in cash. He said he couldn’t wait to go inside, eat, and be able to take a shower…something he hadn’t done in a long time.
Before walking inside, Jerry told me that just earlier that afternoon, he stopped outside a restaurant in downtown Birmingham and asked for some water. The manager, who Jerry made a point to tell me was white, gave him a bottle of water but then told him “…not to be running off his customers.” Jerry was insulted by this…he was simply down on his luck with no means to really better himself. He was thankful that “…there are other, kind people out here who help folks like me.”
Jerry mentioned God, or “The Lord,” several times during our car ride. He referenced “the Lord” in the way that a grandmotherly black woman would…in that sort of “all things which are good in this world” and less in a “personal relationship” kind of way. He called me his ‘guardian angel’, thanked me one last time, and I waited to watch him get into his room safely. I then turned out of the motel parking lot, went three blocks over to I-65S and headed toward home.
One question Jerry asked me, but didn’t stop talking long enough to let me answer was, “Why did you stop? So many people drove by in cars but nobody stop to help me. Why you stop?” Again, he didn’t allow me to answer…he went right on about his good luck and with gratitude. I didn’t tell Jerry that I passed him by the first time or that I drove around Birmingham’s one-way streets looking for him. I didn’t answer Jerry at all. In fact, looking back, I said very few words during the whole ordeal…Jerry was glad to have someone who would listen…and someone, at least for the moment, who seemed to care about him and his plight in life.
Jerry wasn’t depressed. He had a hard life, but he was in good spirits. He may have even put on a slightly embellished story at times, thinking to himself, “This rich white boy might give me some more money.” I’m not naive…I was able to discern when Jerry was putting on a bit…but he never begged, never asked for anything more than what I offered, and always said thank you. I took $100 out of the ATM and I didn’t intend to have any left once we parted ways. I had been doing well recently and $100 wasn’t going to break me. I was glad to help.
No doubt my mother will cringe when reading this. Though I am one month shy of turning 27, I’m still her youngest…her baby. And, it wasn’t but 6 months earlier than I picked up a man hitchhiking from Birmingham, south-bound. It was clouding up and I could tell the bottom was about to fall out. I was headed home to Dothan and I thought if he was going South, I could help him. His name was Paul and I took him as far south at Montgomery and dropped him at a truck stop…he was headed to Mobile, across the state from my destination in Dothan. Not 5 minutes after picking him up, a storm of massive proportions did, in fact, blow in. I would have felt awful knowing he was out there, on the side of the interstate in that storm. My mother was very upset at my having stopped to pick him up, she immediately thought the worst. And, of course, I realize that helping people these days isn’t the same as it used to be. There are bad people out there who will take advantage of you. With Jerry and Paul, I was quick to survey the situation before inviting them into my truck. Each time, my large knife was by my side, and had I had a bad feeling about either of them after pulling over, I wouldn’t have hesitated to move on. But, in both cases, I’m glad I didn’t.
…I don’t know why I stopped to pick up Jerry, though. Or rather, and maybe even more surprisingly, why I drove all the way home, almost, just to turn around and search for him. God has blessed me, and my family, immensly in this life. I have more than I need and never go without. I’ve never known what it is to be hungry, or not to have a clean bed to lay in. I’ve never once worried about where I was going to sleep or where my next meal would come from. Like the song says, “…even my worst days aren’t that bad.”
Just before I turned my car around to pick up Jerry, before I made the decision to turn around, I thought “I hope he’ll be alright…I wonder what his story is.” God brought to my mind a passage in James, chapter 2, vv. 15,16. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” This passage kept running through my head, and ultimately, is what caused me to turn around.
To be cliche, I think it was I who received the blessing by helping Jerry out tonight. The $100 I invested into him will hardly be missed but I’ll always remember the opportunity I had to help him, if only for a day. I hope Jerry sleeps well tonight, in a clean bed and on a full stomach. I hope he thanks God for the stranger who stopped to help him and is encouraged as he goes about his day tomorrow. I hope he doesn’t soon forget “Big Pimpin” as I know I won’t soon forget him…and who knows, maybe we’ll go bowling one day.