Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Night Shift Saint

Philippians 2:1-7 (New Living Translation)

“Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and sympathetic? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one heart and purpose.
Don't be selfish; don't live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing.
Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form.”

It happened sometime during the roaring nineties. The Dow was up and political morality was down. While the giddiness of profits was moving into the economic stratosphere, politics was descending into the gutter. It was, as Dickens once said, “the best of times and the worst of times.”

Nancy and I were working at FedEx’s Eastern Region headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey. This placed us in a perfect position to not only work productively for a great company, but also to see all the culture and history of the eastern seaboard. It was during these times that we took one of our three or four vacations to Washington, D.C., ostensibly to see as much of the city’s history and culture that we could absorb. We spent part of one day watching a Senate debate about the North American Free Trade Act between Fritz Hollings and Ted Kennedy, which Hollings, surprisingly, won. The good senator from Massachusetts didn’t comport himself well at all. He appeared to me to be in desperate need of the hair of the dog. Seeing him in such a state reminded me of the times back in the sixties when I often woke up in the morning looking for the tomato juice and beer to relieve the results of the previous night’s merry-making. As I recall we also spent about a half an hour at the Supreme Court building. Nancy had often told me that there was a not-so famous Catron who had served as an Associate Justice on the Great Court. The evidence of her claim, a portrait of Associate Justice John Catron, hangs in the basement of the building along with the other mug shots. I say “mug shots” because I suspect a lot of Americans have famous relatives they’d rather not claim. Justice Catron was the famous black sheep of the Catron family for his unfathomable vote in the Dred Scott decision of 1858. Since that time, very few, if any, Catrons have had much use for lawyers.

There were also lighter moments. On our visit to the White House some knucklehead decided to test the rule against taking photos during the tour. As soon as his camera flashed three Secret Servicemen pounced on him, confiscated the camera, and had him in handcuffs. I’ve heard that Muhammad Ali claimed he could turn off the light switch and be in bed before the room went dark. Upon seeing the handiwork of the Secret Service, I think they’d give the champ a real run for his money. It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, over in a flash.

By the time the day was over, we’d also seen Hsing-Hsing the panda at the national zoo and Archie Bunker’s chair at one of the Smithsonian museums. All in all, it was a very rewarding, interesting day.

After dinner we made our way back to our room at the Lombardy, a very nice hotel in Foggy Bottom, about three our four blocks from the White House and all the other halls of America’s national power. My last fleeting memory as sleep began to envelop my body was being impressed with it all. There’s a lot of powerful stuff going on in our nation’s capitol. There are great debates and decisions, some good and some bad. There are monuments to great men. There’s the original copy of our Declaration of Independence. Little did I realize as I fell asleep that I was going to learn an even greater lesson about power from the night shift saint.

At about two or so in the morning Nancy nudged me. “Do you smell smoke?” she asked. I groaned and told her to go back to sleep. She nudged me again. “Slick, I think I smell smoke.” I sat up in bed, rubbed my eyes and took a deep breath. Nothing. “Go back to sleep, everything’s fine,” I reassured her. She nudged me again. “I’m telling you, I smell smoke. Let’s get up and go downstairs.” The third nudge told me that Nancy wasn’t going to be denied. We got up and made our way down to the lobby. By the time we got there Nancy told her story. Years earlier she’d lived in an apartment building that had caught fire. It was a devastating event. While she came out of it all okay, two or three people who lived in apartments close to hers died in the fire. Since that time she’s had a deathly fear of fire. I remember feeling badly for having taken her nudges so lightly and suggested we might find a place to get a cup of coffee. The desk clerk told us there was an all-night Burger King next door and we walked, hand in hand, over to an encounter like few we’ve ever had together.

I didn’t notice much when we first got there. One Burger King in Washington, D.C. is pretty much the same as any Burger King anywhere in the world. A Whopper in Washington, D.C. is pretty much the same as a Whopper in Tokyo. It’s the kind of familiarity that’s supposed to bring comfort. I like to think of it as the “hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us” syndrome. But, as we sat down at a table with our coffee, my stereotypes were about to be shattered. My first glimpse of the new reality came when I noticed several homeless people shuffle in. As they did, I made sure my wallet was secure and kept a watchful eye on them. They were ragged, dirty, and hungry, as is the custom of the homeless. They made their way slowly to front counter, eyeing the food being prepared. As they did a tall African-American man came out of the kitchen. He was tall, about six feet three, well muscled. His face was round and cherubic, giving the appearance of peace and grace under fire. I’m sure he’d seen it all on the night shift and there was little that appeared to faze him. He leaned over and asked one of the homeless men, “Whatchya’ want?” There was no answer. “Hungry?” he asked. They nodded in the affirmative. The man, who I now assumed was the manager, went back into the kitchen. A few minutes later he came back with mops and buckets in tow. “Here,” he said. “Mop up a bit and I’ll give you something to eat.” The homeless men complied and did what I’d call a creditable job. When their work was done the manager inspected it and gave them each a Whopper, fries and a Coke. They thanked him profusely, wolfed down the food, and left. As they did the manager waved and said, “See you guys tomorrow night.” Nancy and I sat watching, transfixed. “Did you see that?” I asked. She nodded. “Amazing, wasn’t it.” It was, as we were to find out later, only the beginning of the lesson.

As we sipped our coffee, Nancy called my attention to a man sitting at a table behind me and catty-corner to the right. The first thing I noticed was the navy blue beret perched on his head. As I made my way down I gazed at his long, thin face. It was weathered and worn. Then I was caught up in a blaze of white. It seemed that everything, down to his shoes, was painted white. It was as though he’d gone wild with a gallon or two of Sherwin Williams primer. There was a sketchbook on the floor propped up against his right leg. On the table in front of him sat a tin of what appeared to be a set of Woolworth’s water colors and a large piece of paper with some sort of avant-garde work in progress. Occasionally, the man would hold his right thumb up about a foot in front of his face and survey the restaurant. I assumed as I watched that he was doing some sort of abstract imitation of “The Potato Eaters.” After a while the manager made his way over to the man and leaned over. “Whatchya’ workin’ on? There was no response. The manager put his right hand on the man’s shoulder. “Can I see your sketches?” A trace of a smile came up on the man’s face as he picked up the sketchbook and handed it to the manager. After a minute or so of browsing, the manager declared the works to be masterpieces, patted the man on the back, and continued on his rounds. The man’s smile got broader. He arched his back and sat up straight. His thumb moved in front of his face once more as he proudly surveyed his living canvas.

At a table directly behind Nancy he stopped and began to talk to a fiftiesh man who appeared to be very troubled. There laid out on the table in front of him was a stack of papers. The manager pulled up a chair and sat down with the man. “You doin’ okay?” he asked. The man placed his face into his cupped hands. “Damned V.A.” he answered. “I don’t understand what they want from me.” After a few minutes of going over the paperwork with the man the manager determined that the V.A. was trying to get some answers about his disability claim. “I’ll help you with it,” the manager offered. “I’ll call them in the morning when I get off if you’ll trust me with the paperwork.” The man happily agreed. As he got up to go back into the kitchen, the manager offered a small prayer for the man. “Bless him lord, give him comfort and help.” It wasn’t one of those great prayers prayed by the booming baritones over at the National Cathedral. There was no mention of “The Ground of All Being.” It was, however, a prayer akin to the widow’s two mites, seemingly unnoticed, but heard loudly in the Halls of Heaven.

By about three-thirty Nancy was ready to go back to the Lombardy. As we made our way, our conversation was filled with a deep sense of gratefulness for what we’d seen and learned. We’d seen the night shift saint, laboring in obscurity, just a few blocks from the seats of our nation’s temporal power. While bills were being debated and billions spent, a tall African-American man with the face of a cherub and a heart close to God was doing the things most often unseen or recognized. A Whopper for a few minutes work. A kind word to a mentally challenged “artist.” A helping hand to a needy veteran.

I’ve heard it said that there are a lot of powerful people in Washington, D.C. After our encounter at the all night Burger King I’m sure there’s at least one. It’s the night shift saint.

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