On a brisk Sunday evening last March, Russ and I encountered a man in downtown Austin who changed the way we view our city. We hadn’t moved yet – but this meeting told us two things: Austin is certainly where we are supposed to be and absolutely everyone has a story.
His name is Derrick. Russ & I met him this evening on the corner of 6th & Lamar. We had just finished eating at Z Tejas & were walking around downtown when Derrick approached us. He was hungry and needed two dollars & twenty cents in order to get the hotdog combo at 7-11 down the street.
“Even if you have ten, twenty cents – that’d be something. It’d get me somewhere & I would sure appreciate it.”
I liked him from the beginning. He had an obvious Cajun drawl – one fostered by many years in an obvious New Orleans-inspired location. Turns out, within five minutes of meeting him, we found out he was from Galveston.
We didn’t have any cash on us – we had used the last of it earlier. But, knowing places were open in Austin a little later than in Central Texas, Russ decided to get him something to eat at Waterloo Icehouse. A big juicy cheeseburger sounded better than days old hotdogs dehydrated from the blinding rotating light anyways.
They were closed.
“You see my luck, man? This is how it’s been for the past few months. I ‘preciate everything you’re doing. Really. I know you don’t have to.”
Russ & I looked at him & looked at each other. We knew where we were headed. We had planned to meander our way to Whole Foods and look around to see what kind of goodies they were promoting. Russ shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, Derrick – how about we head on to Whole Foods? I think they are open to at least 10:00 & we should have time to get you something to eat.”
“Are you serious?” He began walking with us down the street – eyes focused in on the motley crue making our way & talking with each other in downtown Austin. Eyes shifted downward & shoulders hesitated as people passed us. I knew what they were thinking. I’ve thought it myself.
If I don’t make eye contact he won’t exist…
We made it to the doorway & he stopped. “I’ll meet you guys out here. I’ll just be sitting over there….” His voice dropped & he glanced in the direction of a stone edifice not 10 ft. away from the picnic tables.
“You don’t want to wait on the picnic tables?” Russ asked.
“No. I-I-I’m too embarrassed.” His shoulders began to sag a little and we quickly said it was fine, we would be back as soon as possible and turned away.
The smell of organic non-processed purity hit us as soon as we stepped into the store. I looked at Russ out of the corner of my eyes. “So. You haven’t eaten a good meal in quite a while. What would you want?”
“Pulled pork.” He says almost immediately. He heads to the meat section to get some fresh BBQ, & I loaded up on some piping hot apple cobbler. We topped it off with a fresh brewed glass of sweet ice tea and made our way outside.
Derrick was waiting for us right where he said he would. I think he thought we were going to turn & run. I don’t think he was expecting conversation. But he opened up that box of food & almost cried in delight. Literally. Can you imagine this? Seriously…right now…just try. Just try and imagine being so hungry you cried when you finally got something to eat.
We sat & talked with him for at least an hour. After a few minutes of small talk, I looked at him & said, “One of my passions is writing, Derrick. I love to write stories about people others wouldn’t normally know or see or pay attention to. If I were to write about you – what is the one thing you would want me to say? What is the one thing you want people to know?”
“Just me. I’m a person you know? Tell ‘em my story.”
I looked at Russ & smiled. I fought back tears & collected myself & forced my emotions to be in the moment. Remember his face. Remember the smell. Remember the chill night air & the teenagers laughing in the distance & the stereos blaring tejano-rap-country-alt from which ever way. Remember this my heart told me. I listened.
We sat there and listened to his story. Born & raised in Louisiana, he’s always had a passion for cooking. Cajun cooking in particular. “Beans. Rice. Gumbo – you name it, I know how to cook it.” He told us the secret of gumbo is not known by these fine eating establishments that like to think they have the most authentic recreation. “They don’t know what they are doing. Gumbo isn’t about money. It’s for family. Gumbo is a family meal.” He says this with enough authority to make you believe he knows what he is talking about, and he does. He worked in the industry for 17 years from the time he moved to Galveston until this past fall. He worked at the same restaurant, six days a week, for 17 years.
Until Hurricane Ike hit.
He remembers is like it was yesterday. It was on a Wednesday. Monday he went into work & heard about the storm, but no one was really worried. “We didn’t think it was gonna hit us. It was headed anotha direction an’ so we went about our business & kep’ workin. Like we always did. LIke I always did. Next thing I knew, the winds came and the rains came and I was sitting in water up to here.” He pointed to his chest. He and everyone else had no choice but to board the bus and head to Austin. Three days later, he went back.
“My job, my house, my neighborhood…nothing. It looked like this,” he said – motioning to the concrete in front of us. “One day it’s there & the next…” he pauses and takes a deep breath. “gone.”
“And people don’t understand, you see? People don’t get that I use to work. That I can work. I know things, you know? I’ve been cooking for 25 years. It’s what I love, what I do. I can’t get a job nowhere. I sleep under a bridge with a sleeping bag & dirty clothes. I was, whatchu call it…complacent? I had a job & money & friends…went to parties and helped out when I could. I wasn’t worried about job security. This place had been around forever. It was a staple, you know? Now? Nothin. I have nothin’.”
He began to cry then. Tiny tears pushing themselves unwillingly out of the socket and down his face. Let me tell you. You wanna be broken? See a big man like Derrick break down. He has resolve though. Wiping his cheeks & taking a deep breath, he continued.
“I ain’t turnin’ into a criminal, though. I can tell you that right now. I’m a keep tryin’.”
I asked where he spent his days, and he told me usually in the library – but since they started construction the library has been closed. So he stakes some bench in a local park, grabs a newspaper, and reads.
I sat there, listening to Derrick, and the whole time my heart is breaking. The whole time I am wanting to stop everyone I see and tell them, “Wait! Can’t you hear him? Don’t you know this man is suffering? He’s a human being! He’s had a life and a job and was three years close to retirement…please. Please listen.” But I know it wouldn’t be any use. I know I would get the same crazy looks we already are getting for sitting here and talking to this man who obviously hasn’t had a chance to shower or do laundry or make himself look presentable because he’s sleeping under a bridge.
But he’s still human.
And as we are chatting and laughing and joking around with each other, and as the conversation turns serious and tears threaten to spill on all three sets of cheeks, it hits me.
This is life.
At Mosaic tonight, we studied John 2 – when Jesus became infuriated and overturned tables in the temple. We discussed why. Was he angry at the injustice? Was he defending those taken advantage of by the ones who should be protecting them? Or was he overturning comfort – forcing those involved to leave their proximity of safety behind and live a slightly more daring life full of trust & faith & love & justice. Walking where He walked. Loving like He loved. Living like He lived.
Because, to me, he was overturning the safety nets of complacency. How can you truly live if you turn the other way & act as if these people don’t exist? How can you stare in Derrick’s eyes, watch him cry, hear his story and feel the pain – only to turn and walk away to forget him the next day?
I dare you.
Because, I promise you. Nothing felt more right than sitting with this man for an hour this evening and letting him share his story. Hearing his hopes & dreams & fears reminded me of the rich truth that we are all in this together. And, if we forget about those who are less fortunate, if we close our eyes to those in distress, we are taking part in their pain.
Next time you’re in Austin, be looking for Derrick. He hangs out by the 7-11 close to The Tavern. If you see him, tell him Russ & I said hello. And then buy him some food & sit down & chat for a bit.
Once you do, you’re family.