It would be easy to drive past the spindly tree alongside the supermarket access road without noticing him.  If you were, for instance, adjusting your car’s air conditioner, tuning in the radio, or opening a snack wrapper, you might not see the figure of a man crouched under the tree, holding a tattered cardboard sign.  And even if you did, it would be difficult to make out its small, faded words.  Nevertheless, you would easily recognize him as a homeless man asking for money, albeit in an unobtrusive way.

We were new to Athens, Georgia, a southern college town, having moved from rural upstate New York.  From a small town where hands and faces are roughened and bodies and spirits worn from battling harsh elements.  Where monthly town meetings are considered a night out on the town and often feature colorful disputes between the locals and any newcomer bold enough to suggest change.  A recent proposal to put in sidewalks, for instance, was swiftly shot down by outrage that made the very idea of sidewalks seem like work of the devil himself.  The opposers were right in one sense, though - there was nothing in that town to walk to.  No supermarket, no drug store, no movie theater, no appealing little shops.  And there was certainly, most definitely, not a homeless man on a corner with a tattered sign, asking for money.  Even someone down on their luck would know not to linger there.

So, it was with concern about this new social dilemma that I said to my husband, “Maybe he’s just passing through”.  But my husband, ever wise and pragmatic, said, “I don’t think so”.  Of course, he was right.  We continued to see that same homeless man, with a long, scruffy beard and worn clothes, positioned under that spindly tree quite often.  And it made me uncomfortable.

It’s not that we’re ill informed or lacking compassion.  As teachers, my husband and I guided students toward understanding of social problems.  We’ve encouraged service to community and have mentored students in the process.  It’s the aspect of personal encounter in our everyday lives that is new, an individual we come to recognize by sight.

In the face of this, I defaulted to two long-ago lessons from my parents.  For one, we were not to see any person as “better” than another.  That included ourselves, as well as strangers upon whom we might be tempted to pass judgment.   Each individual is more than what we see from afar, they would say, and has lived a life we cannot know.  Each has been someone’s child, perhaps brother, father, sister, friend, or coworker, and so on.  Respect should be accorded on that basis.  Whether or not that’s a legitimate basis for respect, I’m not sure.  But, their dictate – to not consider one person better than another has shaped me in profound ways.  And, indeed I have rediscovered the wisdom of their words many times.

My parents were not the consummate humanists, however.  Their second related lesson was to “roll up the windows and lock the doors” when passing through city streets populated by people other than those like us and our middle-class neighbors.  “You never know what they might do,” my parents would say about those “not like us” kind of people.  This is also a lesson I have carried with me.

So it came to be that as we regularly passed this homeless man, under the spindly tree alongside the supermarket access road, I would silently reflect on his humanity and his place in the lives of others while still making sure that our windows were rolled up and the doors locked.

We did not have to imagine how to apply the first lesson, however.  What we saw made it clear that he was loved and in fact that he was the most important person in the world to another being – his dog.   Of medium size and elderly-looking but sturdy, the dog was by his side each time we passed.  They looked at each other often, the man and the dog.  As he held the sign, the man stroked the dog’s neck and back.  As the dog lay under the tree, he stayed close to the man.  No leash, just the bond between the two that was obvious, even in the fleeting view from a moving car.

It was a while before I allowed myself to even become curious.  But with time and multiple passes by “his” corner on that access road, I came to anticipate seeing him there.  At first it was to study the man and his dog as objects of my curiosity.  “Where do they sleep?” I asked my husband.  It was clear that they were together day and night.  “How does he take care of the dog?” I wondered out loud, especially because the dog didn’t look underfed or dirty.

Of course neither one of us knew the answers.

Beyond curiosity, though, it became something magnetic.  I wanted to see the two of them there on that corner whenever we were in town.  In some tucked away corner of my heart, I worried about them.  I wanted to see with my own eyes that they were all right.

Yet our windows stayed rolled up.  Not once did I think of stopping to give him money, as I saw others do.  Not once did we buy dog food at the supermarket to leave with him or even stop to exchange a few words.

The closest encounter we had was at a fast food joint nearby the supermarket.  We were having our fill of burgers and drinks when I spotted the dog lying on the pavement just outside a side entrance.  Unleashed and untied, he seemed content as could be, waiting for his man to return.  Then my eyes found the man sitting at a table, eating a cheap burger like the rest of us, watching me as I looked with concern at his dog outside.  I met his gaze for just a split second and quickly looked away.

The look in his eyes was piercing.  Not particularly threatening, just piercing – a kind of “don’t even think of messing with my dog” look.  There could be no parent with a more assertive, protective look than what he gave me.  I was taken aback with reverence for their relationship.  And it was all conveyed in that single glance.

But the dog looked old.  “What will happen when his dog passes away?” I asked.  Again, the question went unanswered.  Then months later, in the middle of a cold, damp Georgia winter, my husband said that he had seen the man pulling a wagon with his dog lying in it, apparently unable to walk any longer.

I just didn’t want it to be true.  I wanted the dog to go on.  I wanted the man to be okay.  I wanted the two of them to be together, just as we had seen so many times.

We had never spoken to him, never offered any help whatsoever.  But I still cared, and my heart was aching for what he must be going through. 

On April 4, 2015, as I prepared to scroll through local news on my phone before going to bed, I saw the headline.  “Homeless Man’s Long-time Companion Dies” it read.  To me, the world crashed in that moment.  Something that seemed so right – a man and his faithful companion – had been separated by death.  Tears that hadn’t come for so many anguishing things in my own life became unstoppable.

Our lives can be filled with layer upon layer of duties, relationship issues, time deadlines, responsibilities of all kinds.  For the most part, we manage it all; we weather the storms; we plan ahead and strategize.  It can be exhilarating and rewarding to live this complicated life and navigate successfully through it.  But it’s also exhausting.  The bond between this man and his dog – so simple, so uncomplicated – stood out in contrast, as a beacon of serenity.  It appealed to a nearly lost part of my psyche that longed for simplicity and absolute trust in another. 

I can’t know, of course, what thoughts or emotions the story pulled out of others.  But it’s reasonable to assume that these sentiments, or some version of them, were shared across the community.  After all, newspaper headlines are reserved for stories of importance or broad interest.

There was to be a memorial service, the article read.  A memorial service at a local church!  To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.  More like flabbergasted … it seemed like a kaleidoscope of unlikely occurrences coming together, like dream fragments that don’t logically follow one another.  The aspect of a church hosting a memorial for a homeless man’s dog!  In decades of being at least an intermittent attendee of churches, stoicism was the order of the day - nothing so untraditional had ever taken place.  The aspect of a community recognizing the dog’s passing as a notable event!  Not to keep bashing that upstate New York town, but … there’s not a chance in hell that the community would have accepted the man and his dog to begin with, let alone collectively pause to note this loss.  The aspect of strangers coming together to console this man!  I generally believe in the goodness of humanity but, still … my experience of a community coming together had been pretty much limited to protests of some sort, mostly for the purpose of keeping dang outsiders and their ideas away.

And so it was that on a bright and beautiful Saturday morning in early spring, over 100 people gathered to honor the relationship between this homeless man and his loyal companion.  There were prayers; there was music; there were words of remembrance and of love and support.  It was lovely and emotional, and certainly so for the man himself.  His raw grief filled the gathering, as did his gratitude for the outpouring.

At the end, many in the crowd waited to speak to him and offer condolences.  I joined the line, carrying a card conveying my sentiments and a gift certificate to that fast food joint.  My time to be truly present and not just a curious observer had come.

This man – the one I had spent months carefully avoiding contact with – greeted each person warmly with a hug and a few words.  It felt good to be there with him.  It was also humbling to realize the mistake I had made, having followed the old advice to “roll up the windows” and drive on by.

Opposite of my initial reaction of hoping he was a transient, I became worried that he might just disappear after losing the dog, move along to another chapter in his life, away from Athens, Georgia.  But, that didn’t happen.  Months have passed and he can still be found alongside that access road, still holding a tattered sign.  And I continue to look for him there, still glad to see that he’s all right.

I wish that I could say that I have changed my ways, that I now reach out without reserve.  But, that’s only partly true.  We stop at times to talk to the man we have come to know as Johnny, who lives alone in the woods not far from that corner.  We might give him a bit of cash or some other item, and ask what else he can use.  And in his gentle, gracious manner, he expresses gratitude, inquires how we’re doing, and asks how he can help us.  He’s a charming southern gentleman in the disguise of an indigent man.  We think of him on cold nights and when we know he hasn’t been feeling well.  And we’ve pondered what else to do.  But we’ve left it at that, at least for now.

Perhaps it would make a nice ending to this story if I said that the experience propelled us to volunteer at a homeless shelter or to serve the larger population of homeless in some way.  It just isn’t true.  And I don’t quite understand it myself.  “Why,” I ask my husband when we pass other people on other street corners, holding cardboard signs, “do we not help that person?”  In his wise and pragmatic way he explains that the individual looks like he could do a day’s work or that he looks too well groomed to be homeless or that … well … just because we can’t stop at every corner.  I don’t argue.

I believe that someone like Johnny serves as a blank screen on which to project our world views.  To some, he’s a victim of his own making.  Perhaps it was drinking or other substance abuse that was his downfall; perhaps it was a character flaw that at some point made panhandling more appealing than work.  From another mindset, he represents unfortunate fallout of society’s relentless sorting.  Perhaps it was mental illness that brought him to the abyss of homelessness.  Or perhaps it was dire occurrences outside of his control, like job loss or personal tragedy, from which he had no resources to recover.  To others, he’s a master manipulator, having developed a finely tuned act for the purpose of bolstering his take.  The persona of long hair, scruffy beard, the bandana, the laid back manner, even his old-fashioned manners, crafted to play his role.  And to still others, his ability to live in the woods, without want of worldly goods, is admirable.  Perhaps being free of the relentless pursuit of something more, something better liberates the soul, brings one to a plateau of heightened awareness, inner peace.

The likelihood is that each of those views holds some truth.  Johnny could be any or all of those things, and it’s still okay – because to me, he will always be the man with the dog, faithful companions to each other in the face of ongoing adversity, strengthening each other with every touch, every look.  He will always be the man who pulled his loyal companion in a wagon when he could no longer walk, a caretaker dreading the loss that was to come.  And he will always be a man I would have least expected to reach out to make the other person feel good – but who does just that.

And that’s the point of this story.  It isn’t about a social cause or call to serve, although that rightly deserves a voice too.  It’s a story of connection, individuals separated by walls we put around ourselves becoming real in each others lives.

My parents had it partially right – it really is best to reserve judgment of others, particularly when those judgments are harsh and devaluing.  But what they missed was that gems of human virtues come in many packages, even those we’ve been taught to recoil from.  It is only by rolling down the windows to reach out – even just a little – that we might find out.

Maryann Schroder
December 2015