I was leaving the bank in front of Pier One when I saw Joe. He caught me by surprise, so I didn’t have time to pull over, park the car and get out. It was sometime in the afternoon. Still cold. This was in late January of this year. I eased the car over, rolled down the window and held out a five. He put his left hand on the car door and leaned into the car slightly.
“Here ya go, man,” I said.
“Hey, thanks,” he said and his hand lingered on the door and he kept looking at me.
Do I know this guy? I thought. What is he waiting for?
I couldn’t park and pray for this man. Cars were behind me and there was no way to pull off to the side.
“God bless you,” I said in weak consolation.
“You too,” he said and removed his hand from the window.
He was young. Maybe early thirties, maybe close to forty. It was a little hard to tell. He didn’t look to be as road weary as some of the other people I’ve met. I pressed the gas and threaded the Explorer into traffic.
Stopping at the traffic light at Zafarano, I kept trying to figure out if I knew this guy or not. He didn’t look familiar, but maybe his face just wasn’t clicking. His expectant look was gnawing at me though. Did he know something? Did he have some kind of intuition about me? That seems crazy, but so does praying for strangers on the side of the street.
Should I go back?
I already knew the answer to that.
I looked over my shoulder and eased into the lane to my right. Then I did it again. I knew I could make my way back if I turned at the Giant store. Traffic was getting to be heavy and it took me a few minutes, but I pulled into the lot by the Blue Corn Café and parked the car in front of Pier One.
I got out, walking towards this guy, feeling strange about coming back. At first he didn’t see me. Then a car honked and the man seated on the concrete in front of me returned the wave of the person in the car, who, I think honked because of the sign the seated man was holding; enigmatically, it said, You Dropped Your Smile. I hadn’t noticed it the first time I drove past.
When the man finally noticed me, a thin smile crossed his face. He didn’t appear to be confused by my reappearance. I think he knew I might return.
“So, I was told to come back here and pray for you,” I said with both hands stuffed into my pockets. Looking at his eyes, I was searching for a sign, or something, to tell me that I was supposed to turn around and come back here.
“Cool,” his watery blue eyes offering nothing but a greeting.
“I’m Chuck,” I said, trying to remain in the moment.
“My name’s Joe.”
“Nice to meet you, Joe.”
Joe was recently clean-shaven. He had dirty blond hair and dark, formerly black, jeans. He wore a black and yellow plaid shirt and a black jacket. I can’t remember what material the jacket was made of. Denim, maybe.
“Where you headed, Joe?”
“Not sure, I’ve been up in Cuba. You know, for the Rainbow Gathering?”
“Yeah…yeah, of course.”
Not Castro’s Cuba, New Mexico’s. It always throws me.
“I was there for a while, but I’ve been in New Mexico for about three years, I guess…”
Then Joe launched into a convoluted story about why he’d been in New Mexico for so long. His tale suggested that it wasn’t by choice and I recall it having a vague conspiratorial air to it. I don’t remember any of the details.
Joe had never gotten up during our exchange. He sat on the ground leaning against the stop sign, looking up at me. His short, dirty-blond hair gusting in the winter wind.
“Joe, do you mind if I pray for you?”
“Sure, that’d be cool.”
“Is there anything that you want me to pray for?”
“I guess…just in general. You know…everything.”
I stood over Joe and prayed for him, my hand resting on his shoulder. Joe had bowed his head and placed his elbows on his knees. He looked to be staring at the concrete between his legs. Joe still held the sign; it rested on his bent legs while I prayed.
God help Joe. Let him know You love him. Help him find his way.
I patted Joe on the shoulder as I left, and once more told him that it was nice to meet him. Lingering a little, I suppose, thinking that I was going to receive some secret message. A word from God. Why else did I have to make such an effort to get back here?
Walking away, it struck me.
I had to come back for Joe. God wanted me to stand in the gap for him, even though I didn’t pray for anything in particular. It was for Joe. Not for me.
That’s easy to lose sight of. I’m constantly questioning God. Asking Him why I need to do something. What am I going to get out of this? Is this good for me? How am I going to be blessed? That day, I didn’t have choirs of angels of singing, simply because I obeyed. That never happens, anyway. What I got was a guy named Joe, a man sitting on the side of the road holding a sign.
I got the opportunity to pray for that man.
I got the opportunity to pray for another human being. Another soul.
There is no greater honor.
As I was still walking towards the car, Joe called out, “Hey!”
I turned around, and Joe held up his sign and pointed at it, grinning.
You Dropped Your Smile, the sign told me.
Joe lifted his hand and waved.
I waved back, and got in my car, smiling.
Thinking back on it, maybe I got my message after all.