My Hero by Jim Harris
First printed in E. D. Herb, Health and Harmony , April 2000
In Philadelphia, abandoned factories and decaying neighborhoods are a fact of life. There have been people living on the street here for as long as I can remember. Lately, there seem to be more and more of those whose only deficit is a lack of ability to compete in an icreasingly stressful and demanding world. I often feel that my own life is a high-maintenance house of cards, and that I'm only one paycheck, one illness, one heartbreak from the street myself, so I try not to judge, and I try to enjoy every moment of health and happiness that comes my way. Life is quite often perfect, but if you're not living in the moment, you don't even notice.
But this is not about me (well, not entirely), it's about one particular street person that I first met in the Winter of '95 on a corner outside the city's swankiest hotel. As I rolled down the car window to hand him some change, I noticed a grubby little dog's head sticking out from beneath a pile of blankets beside him. That made me smile, and it piqued my interest in the man. He was thin but fit, with a penetrating gaze and a gentle, quite coherent demeanor. The light turned green and I sped off to work. One of my coworkers said that the dog might be a gimmick to get more money. Another thought that it was ridiculous for a homeless person to waste what little he had on an animal.
I started going out of my way to see this odd couple at every opportunity. Sometimes we'd chat. He was a Viet Nam vet. He found the dog on the street. He didn't sleep in the city shelters because they don't allow pets. For the next five years, I watched him keep that dog alive and by his side with such tenacity and devotion as I have seldom ever seen (I couldn't keep crabgrass alive under those conditions!). Showers under fire hydrants in the blazing heat, coats made of packing materials in the winter (they had matching outfits) - there was no end to his ingenuity in the interest of his beloved friend. I'd often see him talking to the dog in his quiet, sincere way, whiling away the hours until they had enough money for their next meal.
One time, when he was in a particularly good mood, he said to me, "you know, some day you're gonna drive by here and see us decked out in the finest clothes". Who could not be humble in the face of a dream like that ? This man makes me want to get up in the morning. He makes me want to keep on trying. I figure if the worst that can happen to me is that I end up like him, I'm in pretty good shape. Indeed, the words of the prophets are written on subway walls. I have seen them well, and they go something like this.
The quality of mercy is
not strained. Someone gives it to me, I give it to someone else,
they give it to someone else, and none of its power and grace
is ever lost. It blesses both the giver and the receiver, because
it is just as basic a need and a right to love as it is to be
(See the song I wrote about this man).
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