Some of the wisest words I ever heard came from a guy who lived in the woods near I-35.
I met him when I was going through a bit of an adjustment phase at my then-new job in 2011. I was in a new city—Austin—with new people, and I felt excited and terrified at the same time.
Coming to live in one of the most wealthy and happening places in America from what has been ranked as the poorest county in the U.S.—Hidalgo County, located in deep South Texas—after five years was somewhat of a culture shock. I was a medium fish in a small pond who moved to the big city and became a little fish in one of the Great Lakes:
What if they figure out that I’m an idiot? Maybe they already have?
What if I don’t make any friends? What if I can’t make it here in this awesome city where everyone else seems perfect?
What if Austin is too fancy of a place for me to live? Can I even afford to live here?
I couldn’t stop doubting myself. I felt a panic that was threatening to unravel me, so one day I got in my car and drove around Round Rock—where I lived at the time—and Pflugerville, both suburbs north of Austin.
One of the things that has always struck me about Austin is despite the vast wealth and prestige generated here, there’s a staggering amount of people who are struggling economically. I see it every day, most especially in the form of the homeless folks on some of our street corners. Sometimes I even wonder if I’ll end up on a corner someday in the never-ending heat, begging for the mercy of strangers.
Anyway, I’m driving in an attempt to distract myself—something I never do because it wastes gas, in my opinion—and I see a man sitting on the corner of the I-35 access road. He was asking for anything passersby could spare. I felt an overwhelming urge to park and talk to the man.
I don’t normally talk to people if I don’t have to, but I’ve learned that when the still, small voice inside me speaks, I ought to listen.
A friend had once suggested keeping bags with socks, underwear, toothpaste and whatever else I could muster in my car so that when I encountered homeless folks, I had something worthwhile to give them. I had created several such bags and grabbed one that included a clean yellow T-shirt.
I parked and walked over to the man. It was fairly hot outside, but he was just sitting there in the heat, taking it.
“Um, hey, sir, I brought this for you,” extending my hand with the bag in it.
He accepted the bag and thanked me.
For whatever reason I sat down in the dirt next to the man and asked about his life. He said he had served in Vietnam. He had a gray beard and clothes that looked like he hadn’t changed in weeks. He was friendly.
From where I was sitting with him I was about level with the dirty tires and exhaust pipes of dozens of vehicles whizzing by, blasting their air conditioning. When the nearby stoplight cycled to red and a few drivers were stopped next to us, they seemed to blatantly ignore us, staring only straight ahead as we sat a few feet away. When the light turned green, the cars seemed to drive away as fast as they could.
Admit it: We’ve all done it.
It was a horrible feeling. Drivers didn’t seem to see us as people but as trash on the side of the road. And the man I was talking to probably experienced it 100 times a day.
He asked about me. I told him what I did and how I was feeling a little lost.
“Go forward no matter what,” he said. “I learned that in the Marines.”
He said he lived in the woods within sight of the corner. Sometimes a van would come by and take him to a shelter. He didn’t seem unhappy; he didn’t seem happy.
Then he said something I will never forget.
“God is in everything,” he said. “See that post right there? God is in it because God created man, and man created that post.”
Whoa. I’d never thought of that.
He said Jesus Christ was the “baddest ass” who ever lived because he believed what he did despite his persecution and the way he was treated and ultimately died. He said I could get through whatever I was dealing with if Jesus could do all that.
He shook my hand.
“My name’s Al. I’ll be around,” he said.
I sensed it was time to leave, so I walked back to my car and turned up the A/C once I got in. I didn’t feel much different from the drivers who seemed to ignore Al and me a few minutes earlier. If people took the time to get to know him, I doubt they’d ever ignore him again.
Homeless no more?
I saw Al again when I took the long way to work one day. He was wearing the shirt I gave him! I was thrilled by that for some reason.
I never saw Al after that, though.
There could be many reasons I haven’t seen him since. Maybe he found work somewhere. Maybe he moved to a different town. Maybe he died. I like to think he found somewhere to live and is doing OK.
I pass through Al’s intersection twice a day now, and I always look for him but never see him. There’s other folks who appear to be homeless at that intersection, and I wonder if they know Al.
Things at work calmed down considerably once I hit my stride. I love my job now and couldn’t bear to work anywhere else. My girlfriend—now my wife—joined me in Austin, and being around her and her family, who lived in the city, too, lifted my spirits.
And I’ve never looked at a traffic sign the same way since the day I met Al.