So Leone from Haiti wandered by my office a couple of weeks ago. She spoke broken English mixed with Creole. He hair was wrapped up in some old cloth. Her teeth were rimmed with crudely set gold. I have no idea how old she is, but I am sure that she has been worn down by the burdens of life. First she asked if I had any cleaning jobs that needed to be done. I said, “No.” Then she said to me, “Pastor, my babies got no food.” I understood what that meant and reached in my pocket. I gave her $34.00, I think. She was elated and thanked me and thanked Jesus. I wondered where this would wind up, weighing my soft lamb faith against my tough bullish cynicism.
I half expected to see her again, maybe with some goat meat or a small token of appreciation. Two weeks later she appeared at my office with a letter of eviction from her land lord. It seems Leone had not paid rent fully in November and not at all in December. It was now March. She was asking me for money. What do you do? She can barely speak English and want is written in every furrow of her brow and each wrinkle around her eyes. “My boy was shot, 25 years.” I think she was referencing a drug related shooting a while back. That was her son, I guess.
Is this a scam? If so, what’s next? I’m a pretty generous person, but I am also tired of being used by folks who play you in the moment of need and don’t need you when their needs are met. I wanted to pass her off to my church. Then I thought that on this level I am the church. I drove her to the bank and got $200.00 in cash. It would make a dent in her troubles and would not dent my balance. Sure, I could do other things with the money, but nothing came to mind on this gray snowy day. “No snow in Haiti”, she laughed as we drove over to the bank. “Why you not come to Haiti, Pastor?”
I told her again that I want to go to Italy and Ireland first. I’m not sure that she even knows that those are places.
God seems to like sending interesting people into my life. Maybe that is why my office is downtown where sometimes the riff raff blows by and sometimes good seeds tumble down the alleyway. She seems like good seed. Unlike Mr. Screamy of earlier posts, this lady had a certain dignity, so it seemed to me. In some weird way this reminds me of Michael in college. I digress.
I was walking home from my Friday evening shift at the Richmond Times Dispatch in downtown Richmond, Virginia. Out of nowhere came a young man around my age– 21, panting and begging me for help. “They’re gonna kill me. Please help me. Oh, please. They’re gonna kill me!!!”
I looked around on the deserted streets at 1:00 a.m. Nobody, nowhere. Nothing to justify the heavy breathing and nearly audible palpitations of Michael’s heart. He was sweating and his eyes were wild with fear. “They chased me from the bus station and took my money.” Now this was possible but unlikely, but I was young and stupid and had never encountered a paranoid schizophrenic before. My compassionate protector persona arose and went into action. “Okay, come with me. I live two blocks away.”
Michael blathered on and on that he had just gotten off the bus from Williamsburg earlier that day. Later on I figured out that he had been released from Eastern State Mental Hospital and given a one way ticket to Richmond, his home town. He had been given various antipsychotics and mood stabilizers and antianxiety medications which he had given away at the bus station like breath mints to strangers. I brought him in to the apartment that I shared with Sam and Mark. I had a nice big room and Michael paced, smoked and talked almost nonstop…all night. I think I fell asleep before dawn on Saturday.
Later that day I did not know what to do with him. By then I had figured out that he was mentally ill and off the hook of accountability. He called his family and got a busy signal. Then he called the operator and demanded that this was an emergency; she had to break into the phone call on his behalf. She did! Before you know it, I’m on the phone with his parents who made it clear that Michael was crazy and they wanted no parts of him. “Oh Crap!!!” I realized too late that I was stuck with a highly emotional, very paranoid, sleep deprived maniac. I got a little freaked out and considered what I’d do if he attacked me. I did not know what to do. I should have walked him downtown to the university hospital ER and then run home. But my world was centered on the urban campus I attended. I thought of the campus mental health center. My Abnormal Psych. professor had mentioned it to the class. So I determined to take Michael there on Monday morning.
Michael did not bathe and smelled of his old nervous sweat. Somehow I got through Sunday night and was elated that Monday had arrived so that I could be done with Michael, who was more psychotic as the medications left his jangled nervous system. Walking up the street to the campus mental health center, we passed a construction site on our right. Michael called out to the Black bricklayers and tried to hug one, “Please don’t let me die, Joe Luis. Joe Luis, don’t let me die!!!” An older Black man sized up the situation in a blink. “It’s all right, son. You be alright.” I deeply appreciated that man’s instant compassion and have never forgotten it. We trudged on.
I’ll never forget the reception at the mental health center. As we walked in, several of the staff called out, “Hello, Michael.” He was a familiar visitor, frequent consumer, and liability. My Abnormal Psych. prof was on duty. “You kept him for a weekend? Oh my God!! You deserve a medal. Yeah, go home and get some sleep.” When sane people try to make rational pies out of irrational berries, nothing good results. Headaches, paranoia, frustration, desperation, exasperation, and smears of wasted berry juice… and then the sad echoing cry of a bird flying through an abandoned coal mine, unable to find rest or exit the darkness.