Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hey Sarge

Sarge had the presence of a jaguar and the leanness of a distance runner. He had been telling war stories about his tours in Vietnam. Now Sarge looked directly at me.

"Ever heard of the Ranger Chokehold?”  His nose was inches from my eyes. I could smell whiskey on his breath.

“No,” I said. In one fluid motion Sarge’s hand was around my throat. His grip tightened as I stepped back, his forefinger and thumb squeezing my larynx. His thumbnail dug into my skin.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to react.

“This is where you grab,” he told me. “That’s hand-to-hand combat.” Then he let me go.

I was with a crowd of homeless people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia. Skyscrapers above us cast long shadows in the midwinter twilight.

I had met Sarge when I arrived that August as a Jesuit Volunteer. I led a volunteer outreach group for a nonprofit empowering the homeless in Philadelphia. We walked around central Philadelphia with three tasks: find the homeless, talk with them, earn their trust.

“I’m Sarge,” he’d said. “Former Army Ranger.” He shook my hand. “Who are you and where are you from?”

“Andrew,” I said. “From Wisconsin.” I saw his nose was busted up and crusted with blood. “How’d you get hurt?” I asked.

“Cop,” said one of his friends. “Sarge was drunk. Took three more to restrain him.”

Sarge laughed. “I stopped because the cop was former military,” he said. “Won’t fight a military man.”

He and his companions befriended me as months passed and the weather turned cold. They found city shelters to be filthy and degrading, so they slept along the Parkway. “Scotland,” one of Sarge’s friends said, which was sewn on my hat. “When Scotland’s here we alright!”

Midwinter’s arrival made the neighborhood seem post-apocalyptic: a dead dog thrown to the curb. Trash everywhere. A toothless woman outside the pharmacy saying “Spare any change, spare any change, spare any change.” Constant sirens and nightly gunfire and drug deals. None of my actions seemed to help anyone.

Worse, I felt more and more hidden from God, as if the bones of my faith were leaching to dust in a crack house ruin. I began to hate and love the homeless, all in the same breath.

Few in Wisconsin seemed to understand my struggle. “I'm not making a difference here,” I told my mom over the phone. I started to cry. “I hate this place.”

“You're doing a great job,” she said. “You are okay.”

I closed my eyes and saw broken glass, a trail of blood, dirty snow. “I just don't know where God is anymore.”

“Are you going to Mass?” she asked.

“Yeah, Mom.” I clenched the phone, saw a priest lifting the chalice, whispering ancient prayers. I felt tired and frustrated by easy answers and ceremonies. “Talk to you later.” I hung up.

The next night my outreach volunteers and I were near Independence Hall. The brick building was covered in snow, lit up all beautiful white and dignified in the darkness. Sarge stumbled past us and walked ahead.

“Sarge!” I called.

He stopped and turned. “I’m calling in artillery,” he said. He lifted his arm and made a fist. “Hotel Echo.” He swung his arm down like a hammer and grinned. “High explosive shells.”

The volunteers looked at each other. “Talk to us a minute,” I said.

Sarge shook his head. “Nope.” He turned and started walking away. “Gonna blow this block up. Better move out!”

We followed him down the street. A mother with a stroller was walking ahead. Sarge stopped to see the child bundled inside. Nobody said anything.

“Hi there!” Sarge leaned towards the stroller and smiled. The mother stared at him. “You’re a cutie pie!” He laughed and in a moment the mother pushed the stroller, hurrying away, not looking back. Sarge watched them, glanced back at us, and then stumbled on his way.

That Saturday I could not relax. I sat in a downtown Starbucks and no longer knew who I was. The comfortable chairs and pungent aromas only heightened my sense of isolation. I had panic attacks, each pulsing in fragmented terror. I ran out the door.

Later I found Sarge on the Parkway. He looked even more tired and beaten down. “Yesterday a teenager punched me in the back of the head,” he said. “I couldn’t chase him. My feet have bad frostbite.”

I thought back to the Christmas Eve service while I was home in Wisconsin. My dad had introduced me to the new parish priest. “This is my son.” He put his arm around me. “A Jesuit Volunteer in Philadelphia.”

“Wow!” the priest said. “You must be doing wonderful things!”

I had grown to hate that reaction above all from strangers, the notion that my outreach was moving mountains for social justice. I just nodded my head and looked away.

Now I looked at Sarge as he rubbed his head. I knew what to say. I knew how to react. I put an arm around him. “My God,” I whispered, for the moment just accepting the mystery. “My God.” 

We sat on the cold bench as traffic sped past and a siren wailed.