I ride my bike to and from work, regardless of conditions. I work downtown, so there are many hazards to navigate. I spend most of my mental energy staying alert to everything, staving off "door prizes" and dozy pedestrians sauntering into my lane. At the same time, I try to push away any needless distractions.
Except when they aren't distractions.
On my way home last week, I hit a red light and scanned the streets as I tend to do when stopped. I saw a homeless guy who set up shop outside a pharmacy. Homelessness in a big city is common, of course, and there was nothing about this man which stood out. Until I read the sign:
"Clean and Sober. Help me get back on my feet."
The light turned green. I was a few minutes away from home. Something compelled me to stay. I rode towards the guy, who was dropping an apple core into the garbage can nearby. Near his sign was a mat, a half-eaten sandwich, a muffin, a water bottle and an olive green duffle bag.
"So how long you been clean and sober?" I asked, leaning over my bicycle bars.
"Three months," he replied as he adjusted his sunglasses.
He was wiry, but not the kind of wiry from being dope sick and unable to eat for weeks. I couldn't see his eyes, but he had both that snap and calm one has when they are on the level. No shakes, no sweats.
"That's great - what was your joy?"
"How you staying clean?"
"Methadone. Planning on getting off that soon too."
He took a bite of his lunch. Healthy food. No junk food for a man whose body saw only toxicity and shame spread and fan out through his veins. We spoke about drugs, and booze and the insanity surrounding it. I told him of my five years sober. He gave me a thumbs up. People buzzed around us, oblivious to this man and the dude talking to him.
As we continued to chat, I made a conscious effort to absorb his frailty, his spirit, his resilience. The first few months of sobriety is like jumping into the deep end without a lifejacket. It's like learning to swim while wave after wave crashes down around you. Emotions, once dormant under the lash of alcohol and/or drugs, rage up again, tossing us about, daring us to stand square to them and let them wash us rather than wipe us out. Everything is super-charged in those first few months, and I remember being at my most suicidal during those tender days.
I admired Donny. I loved his acceptance about his situation. He wasn't wearing self-pity like a shawl, wrapped around a hand out for a few extra sheckles. He was planted firmly on the ground, smiling, feeling the sun on his face. I can't say I do the same on a daily basis, and I have so much going on for me. I will look at the negative, sour on the things that others would love to have. I will self-sabotage. I will jerk the chain hard on joy when it wants to wander off onto the green fields.
"You look like you're doing pretty good, considering," I said, digging into my backpack.
"Could be worse. Could be dead," he said, taking a swig of his water.
I folded a $10 bill and handed it to him.
"Hope this helps in a small way."
"You betcha. Thanks."
I thought of the times I swindled and lied to get my next fix. Ten dollars would have gotten me just enough to last me an hour or so. It would have paid for the morning booze, the stuff to stop the massive shakes at dawn. But I don't have to worry about that kind of problem any more.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Donny. Call me Donny. That's what they call me down here."
I thanked Donny and went back towards my home. Not a street corner or shelter. A house. Where there is a car parked and food in the fridge. A family who accepts and loves me. A place to put all the things my job allows me to purchase.
Donny was God in the shape of a fellow traveller. I know that I was meant to talk to him, to share with him, and to alight from his spirit and form. It was another touchstone in which we get to be of service, to be reminded where we came from, and what is possible.
It was love.