He sat slumped in his chair in the waiting hall at Toronto Union Station’s bus terminal. It was already past midnight when I arrived and first noticed him. His pale green hospital johnny shirt, with multiple ties at the back, was the first thing I saw – that, and his bare feet splayed on the cold shiny floor with toenails as long as a coke nail. His upper torso, as he later rather proudly revealed to me, was a patchwork of surgical interventions, the most recent being bright red scars from a pacemaker implant. He was wearing a hospital bracelet. He claimed to be drunk. He also claimed to be undergoing treatment for blood cancer and to be a high-end, in-demand computer programmer (which he may well have been, since he seemed to know all the jargon). He didn’t appear drunk to me and I have no idea whether he was actually undergoing treatment for cancer, but I took him at his word. He seemed honest enough.
We talked for at least two hours. After a while, I didn’t notice the johnny shirt or the bare feet anymore, he was so down-to-earth and engaging. He had the usual problems many middle-aged men have today – messy divorce, vindictive ex-wife, problems getting access to his kids, a drained bank account from lawyers’ fees and support payments. His days, as he told me, were mostly filled with doctors’ visits and cancer treatment sessions. He didn’t say why he was wearing a johnny shirt, and I didn’t ask. His plan was to move back to Ottawa (his hometown) with the financial assistance of his sister, and to start his life over. His plan was to get healthy. His plan was to take a job offered to him in the U.S. His plan was to take a job offered to him just yesterday in Germany. His plan was to start his own business, move to Portugal, and ogle bikini-babes on the beach.
Then reality intervened in the form of four burly police officers. They were the night sweeping crew whose job was to sweep out of the waiting hall everyone who didn’t have a reason to be there. I had a ticket for a 5:29 a.m. bus to Niagara Falls and stated permission from the station staff to be there, so I allegedly had a reason: I was grudgingly allowed to stay. My barefoot johnny-shirted friend, on the other hand, had no such reason. He, along with a dozen or so others, were unceremoniously swept out into the cold dark night. It was around 2:30 in the morning.
I doubt I’ll ever see him again.
My travels often take me places I don’t anticipate. I work as I go, not knowing even a few days in advance where I’ll end up. This often puts me in places like bus stations and airports overnight as I wait for my transportation connection early the next day. It also puts me face-to-face with people I’d otherwise never have a chance to meet or share a word with. I am always astonished at how different the opinions of these people are compared to the alleged prevailing norms fed to us by mainstream media.
A few weeks ago, I overnighted at an airport, waiting for my early a.m. transportation connection. It wasn’t my favourite thing to do, so I asked God if he’d do something to mitigate it, to make the time go by faster and more pleasantly. When I arrived, I found only one sleepable bench (that is, one without intervening armrests) available in the airport’s landside waiting hall, with a woman already camped out on the attached bench behind it. She was talking on her phone, and we nodded a quick greeting, but otherwise minded our own business. But because she was seated so close to me, I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation and wonder what language she was speaking. It sounded like a cross between Arabic and Hebrew. When she got off the phone, we exchanged pleasantries, and I asked her if she was speaking Hebrew. As it turned out, she had been speaking Aramaic.
Aramaic is the language Jesus spoke during his time on Earth. It was the language he spoke at home and the language he preached and taught in. It was the language he spoke to God in.
The woman told me she was from a Christian-majority village in Iraq. Her family had migrated to Canada, the US, Australia, France and Germany. Her mother was in Canada, and the woman had just flown in from Frankfurt to attend to her on her deathbed. She didn’t expect her mother to live beyond the next few days.
Given the situation and the time (it was well past midnight when I’d arrived), our conversation was muted but intense. What do you say to someone in this situation? Despite her apparent jet lag and the sobering reason for her visit to Canada, the woman was remarkably calm and in good spirits. She said she’d been praying during her flight. I told her I would pray for her, too, and for her mother and the rest of her family. She taught me a few words in Aramaic (such as how to say “Jesus” as his mother would have said it) and at some point, exhausted but feeling like giggly friends at a sleepover, we both fell asleep.
At around 4 a.m., I was gently shaken awake by the woman. She whispered that she was leaving to catch her flight, but that she wanted to give me something as a token of the time we’d spent together. She handed me a tiny silver angel on a worn string, which she told me she’d carried with her everywhere for years. She now wanted to give it to me.
I took it as a gift, and it remains with me to this day. I attribute no powers to it, but it reminds of the woman and her mother and our impromptu midnight language lesson. Of all the people I could have sat next to – and of all the languages she could have spoken – it had to be a Christian woman who spoke the language of Jesus.
It was by far the best night I’d ever spent at an airport.
God clearly had a hand in it.
“Ask and ye shall receive.”
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Do I have a choice?” My words were curt, but the broad smile on my face showed I was only kidding.
“No,” he responded just as curtly and with as big a smile, “I guess you don’t”.
With that, he settled into the seat next to me, stretched out his legs, and made himself comfortable. We were on a mini-bus heading up from Moncton to Campbellton, a small town in northern New Brunswick. He’d gotten on at a whistle stop about two hours south of Campbellton, which he later told me he works and lives in during the week. On the weekends, he goes home to his reservation just outside Campbellton.
I’d been to the area a few times already in my travels over the years and I was looking forward to visiting again. The region, situated along a river estuary on the north Atlantic, is well known for its seafood industry, especially salmon. I have a particular love for Atlantic salmon because the water the fish live in is so cold, they have to fatten up to survive. The fat is what gives them their distinctive and (to me) incomparably delicious flavour.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to buy wild-caught Atlantic salmon now. Most of the salmon commercially available is farmed and tastes nothing like the wild variety. A moratorium on wild salmon (and other fish) has been ongoing in the Atlantic region for over 30 years. The only fishers exempt from the moratorium are Canada’s aboriginals.
Which brings me back to my bus seat-mate. As we rolled and bumped along the pot-holed highway in the dark, he regaled me with stories of growing up on the reservation and learning how to hunt and fish and other survival skills. He claimed to be able to live off the land, if he had to. He also told me about an aboriginal-run store just outside Campbellton that sells wild salmon caught fresh that morning, along with the smoked variety. My mouth watered just thinking about it. During my last visit to Campbellton, some locals I’d spoken to mentioned the store, but they’d said it was a ways outside town, and I had no means of getting there.
This is one of the reasons I travel – to learn from locals. Sure, you can talk to people working at tourist information centres (many of whom may be locals), but they usually have to stay on script and are paid to push certain attractions.
I travel because I can and because I have to. I can’t always sit still in one place. Like a migrating animal, I move to satisfy my most pressing needs, which in my case are almost always cheap rent and good quality cheap food.
Jesus moved around a lot, too, but not necessarily for cheap rent and good food. He moved around to feed the hungry the only food they really needed. I move around to feed my loner’s soul. Feeding the hungry I can do anywhere from virtual space.
Der Aufbruch (German)
Ich befahl mein Pferd aus dem Stall zu holen. Der Diener verstand mich nicht. Ich ging selbst in den Stall, sattelte mein Pferd und bestieg es. In der Ferne hörte ich eine Trompete blasen, ich fragte ihn, was das bedeutete. Er wusste nichts und hatte nichts gehört. Beim Tore hielt er mich auf und fragte: »Wohin reitet der Herr?«
»Ich weiß es nicht«, sagte ich, »nur weg von hier, nur weg von hier. Immerfort weg von hier, nur so kann ich mein Ziel erreichen.«
»Du kennst also dein Ziel«, fragte er.
»Ja«, antwortete ich, »ich sagte es doch: ›Weg-von-hier‹ – das ist mein Ziel.«
The Departure (English)
I ordered my horse to be brought form the stables. The servant did not understand my orders. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted. In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped and asked: “Where is the master going?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.”
“So you know your goal?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you. Out of here – that’s my goal.”
(Excerpted from Franz Kafka’s Der Aufbruch)
“I’m a warrior”, my Campbellton-bound seatmate informed me. “That’s my heritage. Warrior. I come from a long line of warriors.” The guy at the Toronto bus station had said the same thing of me. He called me a warrior. He said I was out there fighting the good fight. I’m not sure what he meant or how he could have known anything beyond what I’d mentioned casually in passing. Most of our conversation was about him. He said his favorite movie was “Gladiator”, and whenever he was feeling down, he’d watch the movie. It energized him.
I vaguely recalled seeing the movie and thinking that killing and taking revenge are no way to get to Heaven, but I said nothing to johnny-shirt guy. Even just the thought of the movie seemed to make him happy, and who was I to take that away from him?
We are all warriors, some braver than others, but all in the same battle for our souls. How we wage that war and the weapons we use is up to us. Our battle isn’t over until we leave this plane of existence, though many of us will stop fighting and wave the white flag long before that. Many of us will declare defeat long before that, just as many of us will declare victory prematurely, only to be shot down in flames.
How is your battle going? Do you stand and fight, or do you move around like I do, like Jesus did, dodging the slings and arrows and feeding those who come to you in sincerity? If you’re here reading this, you’re still fighting. No-one who’s read this far isn’t a warrior.
“I feel so good!” he shouted to no-one and everyone, his voice filled with joy. “I stopped drinking and found the Lord. I’ve never felt so good in my life!”
He stood amidst the bus bays at the Dartmouth Bridge Terminal, a still point among the bustle of morning commuters. He was dressed in filthy rags and leaning on his grocery cart piled high with bulging tattered black garbage bags. Obviously, with that cart, he wasn’t getting on a bus. His job that morning seemed to be informing the commuters about the state of his soul. Most ignored him, but I felt a surge of love that propelled me to go over to him.
“Is Jesus your Lord?”, I asked him, just to make sure we were on the same page.
His face lit up at the mention of the Word. “Yes, Jesus,” he nodded vigorously. “Jesus saved me. I feel so good! I stopped drinking without any 12-step program. Jesus did that.”
He looked like he’d been on the street a long time. He looked like he’d been in the worst of the trench warfare and was still deep in it. But his wide toothless smile was genuine and the glow of his face was not something that came from a bottle or a needle. It came straight from God.
“I love you,” I told him without thinking. The words just poured out. My confession seemed to startle him and he looked almost fearfully at me.
“I mean I love you like a sister”, I explained. “Jesus is my Lord, too, so we’re family. You’re my brother.”
“Then I love you”, he said shyly but with the same joy as his earlier declarations. “I love you, too. You’re my sister.” He seemed happy to say that. He seemed happy to have a sister.
We chatted for a bit about God and Jesus and what they’d done for us, and then my bus pulled up and I reluctantly waved him good-bye.
As I rolled away, I could hear him declaring his joy again to anyone and everyone who had ears to hear.
I had the distinct impression I’d just met Lazarus.