Every two days or so, Curtis comes to my office to visit me. Well, I call it my office, but it’s more like the church’s office, where I am forced to sit all day behind glass and answer phones and talk to people through a small round whole in one of the panes. In any case, Curtis comes by several times a week, carrying a backpack and wearing at least one, occasionally two, button down shirts and a rosary around his neck. He often gives me business cards for people who are, strangley, not him. He has a stack of them in his backpack, and apparently as he makes his rounds through Houston, through the medical center and downtown and midtown and wherever else the train will take him, he collects flyers and business cards from the receptionists at Herman Hospital, bulletins and pictures of the pope form the catholic churches and he hands them out to his friends. I am one of these friends, and I have a stack of letters and bulletins and catalogs in my drawer that I keep for a whil, then recycle. Curtis is and odd man, but he’s not at all unfriendly or belligerent. He’s usually upbeat. “Hey Jeremy, how you been doing? Working hard? When you going to come visit me? You know where I live, right down by the museums.” And then, after I’ve mumbled something friendly, he’ll command me in a friendly Texan accent, “Hey, write this down: 713-383-4465. Tell the pastors to pray for my friend Jean, that’s J-E-A-N. She’s my good friend at the hospital. I go there every day. That’s her number.” I gave him a couple dollars for lunch once, and was reminded why this is a bad idea when I had to turn him down the next day. Usually, though, he doesn’t ask for anything but prayer. “Tell the pastor to pray for divine financial assistance, and divine strength.” I tell him I will, and I try to pray for him, but I don’t as often as I should. Then he’ll head out. “OK, you have a great day. Don’t work too hard Jeremy.”
I don’t understand Curtis, but he’s sweet and harmless. A church in midtown attracts a lot of rather odd people, often a little needy and probably more than a little mentally ill. When someone like “John Williams the Third” calls, there’s little I can do but listen. In a fluttering voice and what he must of thought was an English accent he told me, “I’m the infant son of the duke of Wales. I’m being held hostage here by government people. I think they work for the post office. ” He was trying to get back to England. I guess because the church is an Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Church, he thought we might be able to help him. He needed to get to an English protectorate, like the West Indies. Or Canada.
I usually can’t help the people who come to the church. I am supposed to send those who need financial assistance to our sister church across the street, called The Lord of the Streets. Sometimes they send them back here, which makes it even harder to send them away, and I see in they’re eyes they feel like helpless ping pong balls, bounced from one spot to the other. Many want bus tickets, but those are almost impossible to get in Houston. When I say I don’t have anything I can give them, they want to talk to someone else. No one else is willing to talk to them, however, and I tell them that. Or rather, I tell them “No one is available,” and sometimes they get mad, and I get mad back. Over time, I have found that the best thing to do is to stay calm and polite. And rolling my eyes is never a good idea, that just makes things worse.
Occasionally I give them a little of my own money, a dollar or two, but this is usually a bad idea. I stopped carrying cash after I accidentally gave a man 20 dollars. I was about to leave, and he came to the door in black pants a dress shirt, in need of some money for a doctor. I was trying to turn him away, when he began to remove his clothing. Right there in the lobby, he unbuttoned his pants, untucked his shirt, and showed me a rash below his waistline. Fortunately, not so far below that he had to completely remove his pants. I told him I thought I had some money but when I looked in my wallet, I could only find a single twenty tucked between receipts. I looked at him, back in my wallet, back at him, and gave him the twenty. He gave me a big hug.
A few want to talk to a priest. Occasionally they want something I can give them. I have bottled water. For a while during the summer, a middle aged black man came by every day, dressed in a suit with kitchen aprons wrapped around his waist and sometimes his head, and asked for a bottle of water. On a Wednesday afternoon an old man, stooped in a blue plastic windbreaker and a beard, came in, asked me what day it was (“It’s Tuesday” I said) and left. There was something profound about that interaction, but I can’t quite figure out what it was. Maybe it was just being able to help someone. Even a little. I wish I could listen more, do more. Maybe he’s mentally ill, maybe he just really needed to know what day it is, or maybe he just wanted to talk to someone, even for a few seconds. On the bus, when my car wasn’t working, a young man just started talking to me. He leaned forward from the seat behind me. “What time is it?” I told him, he was quiet for a while, and then he said to me, “Do you what it is when you young, but you old?” I don’t, really. I didn’t know what to say. He was shaking his head, not at me, but maybe at his life, obviously difficult and bleak. “Damn,” he said.