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A Wise Man (The Gift)

“I love ya man” Me? I asked myself in silence. Who sent you here? I felt so afraid, receiving this sensation. Was I valued enough, for someone to send an unknown guardian? Who knew, that such reassurance was needed from a stranger, elevating my spirit and lifting me from this melancholy, depression. The first time I saw Joe he was laying in a doorway and it was the winter of 1977-78. I had just begun my first day in barbering school, Cincinnati’s “Over-the-Rhine.” He laid there like a piece of gum that society had chewed up and spit out. Only to be trampled upon and embedded into the concrete. The clothes he wore barely fit enough to keep him warm, his shirt stuck out past the shrunken and frayed wool jacket. Through the spilt seam on the rear of his pants, his underwear revealed while he curled up on an old piece of cardboard. I just had turned seventeen and never in my life have I witnessed such a desolate individual. After all, he probably deserved the situation he was in, just plain lazy or drunk. I thought it was ironic to watch a wino urinate in a garbage can, and then later, see another person search for something to eat from the same container. There were two areas in the school, a junior and senior side. The senior side charged for services, seventy-five cents for a haircut, and a fifty-cents for a shave. On The junior side where all began, haircuts and shaves were generally free. An instructor would grasp a homeless individual off the street and offer a free service, or, sometimes they would just walk in. They all received the same haircut on the junior side; you would take a burr clipper and just buzz the hair down. “Just like shearing sheep on the way to the slaughter house,” one of my instructors would boast. (The owner, wife and son were very courteous to the homeless; they also owned a little grocery store up the block, Albert’s). These people were so filthy. They had not bathed nor had their hair washed in months. The clippers would clog up with the accumulated dandruff and scabs in the waxy-coated hair. We always had to check for bleeding sores and head lice before we could start cutting. Joe stumbled in that day and pointed to his head. “You’re up Tim,” an instructor impatiently yelled. I motioned for Joe to come over; he released a deep drowning moan as he sat down. Oh, the body odor, I will never forget the scent. He smelled like bacon grease and cigarettes, while his breath stunk of alcohol and rotting teeth. Not at all greeting him, I threw the haircloth around him and prepared my clippers. As I looked into the mirror, his features began to soften as the tiny droplets of frost and sinus drainage started to melt away from his beard and mustache. Joe removed the tattered beanie cap and his matted down hair revealed the years of tangled memories. I really do not remember if I asked what kind of haircut Joe wanted, he was just a subject and it was a free service. I only knew how to give a burr. I turned on the clippers and proceeded to mow his hair right down the middle. “Naah” Joe’s voice garbled while motioning his hands. “He just wants a little off all over, just a trim,” my instructor smirked. “I’m so sorry.” This was my first real lesson in humility. (I later learned that people living on the streets keep their hair longer for warmth in the winter.)
I felt so embarrassed; I hurried to finish the haircut and trimmed his beard. I took the haircloth off and lowered the barber chair. Joe slowly lifted his body up from the seat, came over to me and patted me on the back as he spoke, and it sounded like “It’s O.K.” For the next few days whenever Joe walked past the huge display window, he would stop, knock on the glass, take off his beanie cap, point to his hair, and smile. In that simple act of forgiveness, Joe had started to become a human to me.
It was so cold outside, business was slow, and students were standing around waiting and talking. Just then, the door flew open, Joe came in with two other individuals. It was obvious they had been drinking. They were getting a little too friendly and begging for money; I think they just wanted to get warm. Joe was not saying too much as he stood there in a bewildered stupor. To my disbelief, one of the instructors came over and started aggressively shoving them out the door. Joe stumbled and fell to the floor. The instructor started repeatedly kicking Joe telling him to “Get out and stay out,” I ran over, pushed the instructor out of the way, and I told him what an ass he was. Joe was bleeding from the nose. I helped him to his feet and sent him on his way. That day, Joe finally became human to me. Soon after, I was on the way to the Bank Café for lunch. Joe was again standing outside begging for money. He asked for some change, and I knew he wanted it for a drink. Therefore, I offered to buy him some lunch. We both ordered the soup and sandwich special. His whole persona opened up to me while we ate. Soup would drip as his trembling hand lifted the spoon, his fingers stained yellow by the years of smoking. While I thought Joe was always drunk, I became aware that he suffered mental problems; his speech was a little hard to understand at times. While I have seen him passing the bottle; was I to judge what he wanted money for? I probably would drink a little wine myself to escape isolation and misery.
Joe was asking for money on afternoon, so instead I offered him a warm lunch, my treat. I learned through my conversation with Joe that when came back from the Vietnam War, his wife had left him. His parents had died a while ago and with no other family, Joe had fallen into a severe depression. He drifted around and ended here in Cincinnati. He did migratory farm labor to earn money, only to lose it on alcohol, gambling, being beaten and robbed. I asked Joe why he did not receive his Veterans benefits. At this point, he shrugged, and seemed not to really even care. (You need an established permanent address to receive any type of aid. Though I doubt Joe could mentally calculate finances anymore.) He loved baseball and kept repeating, “those Cincinnati Reds.” I left Joe sitting there at the bar when we were finished with lunch. After all, today he was a paying customer and Joe could stay warm a little while longer. Joe asked if I had a pen, which I did. I gave it to him and he just started scribbling on a napkin. Maybe a long lost note to home. I graduated from Barbering School and left Over the Rhine, and Joe.
It was many years later; I was walking downtown and low on self-esteem. My life had taken a complete spin in terms of health, employment and finances. (I was in a bad auto accident, a heart attack, self-employed and had to close our business, and suffered nerve damage from an accident) How could I keep working? Am I not a man anymore? As I drifted along bewildered, I heard, “I love ya, man.” My feelings transformed as I turned and saw a man leaning against a building panhandling. It was Joe! (this is true) I walked over and put what I had in his cup. I told Joe that I remembered him from many years ago, yet, he did not recognize me. Or did he? We shook hands as our lives touched once again. That day Joe became an angel, a guardian? Through volunteering, cutting the hair of the homeless, my wife and I have met many Joe’s in life. They all share a common thread, being human. How many Joe’s have you met in your life, or, are you a Joe?
“I love ya, man.”

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