Author’s Page: ‘The Man on the Bench’
Special to the Tribune
My first reaction was not one of charity, seeing such a disheveled dirty person sitting on the bench of our urban mall. His beard and hair were long and stringy and his jacket was so stained that he looked like he used his body to mop the floor at Jiffy Lube. I would pass him at least four times on each of my morning walks at the mall in the winter and he was also there on the occasions when I was in the mall in the afternoon or evening. He seemed to live at the mall and I wondered why the security guards allowed that. Surely his presence wouldn’t enhance anyone’s shopping experience; and as I passed his bench on my many laps around the mall, I made sure I gave him a wide berth.
Then a funny thing happened … I began looking for him and his presence became a part of the overall mall experience and I no longer purposely walked on the other side of the mall from him. Plus I finally realized that there was no reason for security to remove him as he never caused any problem; not once did I see him ask for money or intimidate the shoppers in any way. In fact, I started to notice that people stopped to talk to him. And he must have been a good conversationalist because sometimes he would still be speaking with the same person when I came back around on another lap. So I watched more closely and realized he was probably quite intelligent and often had a visitor, almost as if he was holding court in the mall. He appeared to be about my age, which would have put him in the Viet Nam war draft pool, and I wondered if he was one of the living casualties of that sad part of American history, one of those unable to cope with life as he once knew it when he returned. Whatever set of events put him in his current condition, he was certainly a gentle soul (and somebody’s son).
Although he never approached anyone, I would see people walk over to give him money; and I was moved to tears when I saw a lady give him a plastic bag with what looked like an orange and a sandwich; likewise, when I saw him in December with a gaily wrapped gift box on his lap in stark contrast to his shabby garments, I thought of how he seemed to bring out the best in people.
Quoting the Bible is not one of my talents, although I do know there is one passage about “whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren… ” and he brought that to mind. Then, more in my area of expertise, Joan Osborne updated that moral in the mid-90’s when she sang, “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us… ” And on the days when the man on the bench sat alone and snoozed, with his arms stretched out on the back of the bench and his head bent low in what I came to think of as his “crucifixion pose,” I thought … what if, indeed…