Greyhound Jesus and Alabama Jimmy
Lessons in Following the Holy Spirit’s Leading,
Faith-Based Hoping, and God’s Lavish Non-Economies of Scale
Part 2 – Seeing with the Eyes of Jesus …
And thus my Greyhound Jesus adventure began … and all kinds of interesting stuff happened at the major stations along the way: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a few places in Arizona and Texas. (Greyhound Jesus and Alabama Jimmy, Part 1 – Going with the Eyes of Jesus …)
All kinds of people take the bus, not just those you might expect. And, in the course of things, I did meet many different kinds of people. But then, that was really the point of going with the eyes of Greyhound Jesus in the first place. Here are some snapshots of highlight meetings and events on the trip:
–> The older mother and adult son outbackers who’d been wiped out financially in Alaska and were on their way back south. Parts of their tale sounded very plausible, other parts sort of imaginative (and self-serving) interpretation.
–> The 20-something woman who asked for a dollar so she could get something from the vending machine, but asked with an attitude of entitlement. (I gave it to her anyway, because I’d arrived at the personal “policy” of keeping some change in my pocket and whenever anyone asks for cash, I give them whatever change I have and don’t feel shamed that I can’t give anything or don’t give more.)
–> The friendly post-punk couple with their post-apocalyptic clothing, which included for the guy a full-length duster coat with hand-crafted sections of tears mended with mail rings – something like you’d see in The Postman or Mad Max or Tank Girl. Some of the coolist and most down-to-earthest people I met on the entire trip, they kindly introduced me to the wonders of speculative fictionist/fantacist Neil Gaiman. They highly recommended Sandman, American Gods, and Neverwhere (which was turned into a must-see BBC miniseries), and I’ve since listened to the audiobook of Interworld, a multiverse story by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves.
–> The utterly erudite and comical street person – a guy who apparently kept body and soul together by trading talk on philosophy and intellectual jokes for some smokes or a bite of bread or cuppa coffee. Who would’ve expected that you could ponder postmodernity at the bus depot … dumbing-down Derrida, philoso-flaying Foucault, ha-ha-ing Heidigger? I found it ironic that someone who obviously wielded a weighty intellect apparently found his meaning in life by talking about those who philosophized about the meaninglessness of life. But then, I didn’t know his circumstances. Maybe that’s all he could find to do, and perhaps better to engage in something rather than nothing.
–> A 60-something woman was on her way to see her new grandchild and the bus was the only way she could get to some obscure place off the map with no nearby airports. So, even if you had the money to fly, it wouldn’t have helped. She and another woman picked up from the same small-town bus stop shared sack lunches with each other and with another woman who’d run out of snacks.
–> I didn’t realize that the Border Patrol would stop the bus in Texas and check everyone’s papers. As it turned out, on each leg of the journey, they took one person off the bus for deportation. On the way back, they happened to remove the quiet and seemingly gentle man who sat right next to me. This is an experience I haven’t yet processed to the depth that I should, but perhaps that will happen in providential timing as part of some other series on missional discovery events.
–> Also on the way home from Doxology, somewhere in the middle of Arizona the bus blew an engine. Several passengers stressed out and yelled at the driver – like it was his fault the engine blew? – and another freaked out so much that I feared he would assault the driver. A scary scene, and I recall praying … a lot! It took well over an hour before the company could send out a replacement bus. But when the bus driver actually asked those who had been antagonistic to help something constructive (e.g., put out warning cones and help transfer all luggage to a roadside lot), then they calmed down. Maybe because the situation was so out of their control, they needed something constructive to do that helped them regain some sense of control, or at least of purpose.
I guess I witnessed a whole range of human possibilities juxtaposed in terms of stories and emotions, strengths and weaknesses. I certainly saw a spectrum: people agitated to the point of violence and people calming one another, people demanding money from others and people sharing their food, people cutting in lines and people holding another’s place in line. That in itself was an educational refresher-course in Humanity 101!
But still, in retrospect, it seems the main purpose for the trip by bus was really all about “Alabama Jimmy,” a young man in his early 20s I met at the Greyhound depot in Los Angeles.
My bus from San Francisco got into Los Angeles barely a bit too late for me to catch an early departure headed for Texas. So I had to figure out how to be sure to get on the next one. I quickly got used to the routine: Find the right departure gate, get in line, talk with the people around you and get to know them, ask them to watch your stuff when you need to exit to get some food or for a trip to the rest room or just to walk and stretch your legs. At first I was surprised at how open and trusting most people were, but as time went on, it made more sense. This is one of those situations you can’t really deal with on your own. If you lose your place in line … well … it could be disastrous!
And as it turns out, that’s part of what happened with Jimmy. He’d missed the previous two buses and had been stuck in the LA Greyhound Terminal for at least 24 hours. The first time, he was something like Passenger #60 in line, and since the buses could only hold about 45 or 50 passengers, and since they didn’t pull up an additional bus just because there are more than 50 people waiting, he missed that one. Second time, he got out of line to get some food and then couldn’t get back into his original place, because he hadn’t connected with someone to act as a placeholder for him.
So here we were in the same cluster of people, about in the #15 to #20 range in line. First thing I remember is that he was trying to sleep on one of the nearby benches while the person in front of me saved his place. When he woke up and got back into line, I was eating a snack. The Voice of Politeness from Childhood inside my brain said, “Don’t eat in front of other people unless you share.” So I offered him a granola bar. He ate part and wrapped up the rest, and tucked it into his backpack. At the time, that struck me as a bit odd, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
We got to chatting eventually, as most people in these lines did sooner or later. You’re often waiting for hours, with nowhere much to go and nothing much else to do, and it made time pass more pleasantly. And since everyone in a bus terminal is going from something to somewhere, those are potentially easy topics to pursue. I talked about my friends who were presenting the Doxology art exhibit in Houston, and Jimmy thought that all sounded cool.
Turns out he’d been to a wedding of his best friends and was on his way back to his grandmother’s place in Alabama. It sounded like she was getting up in years and that Jimmy was one of the few in her extended family who was acting as a regular visitor or even a caregiver. I could tell by his enthusiasm on that topic that he adored her, and it seemed she was perhaps the closest family he had and that his parents weren’t in the picture much.
At one point Jimmy asked me to watch his stuff and hold his place in line so he could take a break … threshold of trust established. It wasn’t that much longer and we all found ourselves on the Greyhound to Texas. Third times a charm, as they say, and boy, was Jimmy happy to be on that bus! We still had at least another 20 hours before we parted ways at a main hub in Texas. I’d go on to Houston and he’d head north to Alabama, with another full day of travel.
When there were stretch breaks, sometimes we’d chat a bit, sometimes not. A couple of other guys about Jimmy’s age boarded somewhere in Arizona, and he’d mostly be talking or sharing a cigarette with them. But sometime in that next day, I noticed that during meal breaks, Jimmy either didn’t leave the bus, or when he did, he didn’t get anything to eat. When he was on the bus, he spent a lot of time trying to sleep.
Something was off … definitely wrong.
The next 45-minute meal/stretch break was “breakfast” – at something like 3 o’clock in the morning. Jimmy milled around with his two buddies for a bit, and when they finished their cigarettes, the other guys went to get something at the truck stop. I knew what I was supposed to do. I went up to Jimmy and asked, “Hey, you doing okay? Looks like you haven’t been feeling well.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Not so great.”
Time to get direct. “Do you have any money for food?”
“No, I would’ve had enough but spent it when I got stuck at the depot in LA. Last thing I bought was dinner last night. And I’ve had the granola bars and other stuff you gave me, and some fruit someone else gave me.”
That meant he’d gone about 30 hours since his last meal, and he had probably another 30 hours at least before he’d arrive at his final Alabama destination.
I snagged my tattered thin black wallet – the one I’ve been using since at least the turn of the millennium – out of my pocket, and pulled out the small stack of folded bills in the middle. I turned the bills this way and that as I tried to figure out what was there under the faint fluorescent glow of lights in the foggy lot outside the truck stop.
“Here … take this. Get some food.” I handed it too him and looked him in the face. “We ‘bus tribe’ people gotta take care of each other.”
I gave him much of what was there. It wasn’t a lot, and it was an odd amount – something like $23, $26, or $27. As best I can recall, Jimmy showed a combination of relief and elation, with a dash of surprise. He was on the verge of tears: “Thanks, man …”
Just after he turned to head inside, his two friends were on their way back to the bus. They’d seen part of the exchange and I overheard one ask Jimmy, “Who’s that? What happened?”
“That’s the guy who’s helpin’ me out to get something to eat.”
“You know him?”
“Naww, just a guy I met at the LA depot.” Jimmy turned to go inside to shop.
Yeah, I mused, just someone whose been short on cash myself before. Walking in wide circles to keep some circulation going, I wouldn’t be surprised if I thought more about the “bus tribe” in Marin while I finished up whatever I was snacking on. I’d used Golden Gate Transit to get to my work for almost the entire time during those agonizing prior 13 months. And there are stories to tell from those experiences as well. Indeed, we bus tribe people do take care of each other, or need to learn how to.
But now, it was nearing the end of the stretch break. Jimmy finally emerged, carrying a bag. He came up to me. “I can’t believe you did that. I don’t think I know anybody in the world who would’ve done that for me. Thanks!”
I chuckled, “Oh, I bet you do – I’m sure other people would do that, too!”
Jimmy looked serious. “Well, if it wasn’t you, it’d have to be somebody just like you, man.” As we turned to get back on the bus, he made sure we made eye contact as he added, “God bless you!”
The two of us didn’t get a chance to talk much more. Somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, our bus routes diverged. About the time buses were due to pull out of that station, I had an overwhelming urge to run over to his bus to hand him a note with my address and ask him to write and let me know he made it to his grandmother’s place okay. But I didn’t. Instead, I prayed a lot for him the rest of the trip … and occasionally do, even to this day.
Sometimes, I still wonder if maybe Alabama Jimmy wonders if it was an angel who brought him cash from heaven.
As I write this, for the first time the thought struck me that perhaps it was Jimmy who was the angel … after all, angels are messengers from God, and his presence helped show me the world through the eyes of Jesus …