A Strange Thing Happened on the Way to the Wildhorse Saloon…


Homeless man on street

Photo from Stock.Xchng

By Michael Schwartzentruber

I was walking to a party that was being held at the saloon as part of the recent Faith Forward 2014 Conference, in Nashville. I had just crossed an intersection about three blocks from the front door when a homeless guy who had been crouching by the side of a building asked me for some money. I stopped. (Unusual for me.) I told him I didn’t have any cash, that I was from Canada and had forgotten to get American money before I left. Then I turned and started to walk away, which is when he stood up and asked if I could buy him some food. He was real hungry, he said. He needed to find work, wanted to find work, but he couldn’t do that if he couldn’t eat, if he was so hungry.

A heartbeat. A second heartbeat…

Just a few hours previously, at noon, I had been part of a small crew from the Faith Forward Conference who had prepared and then handed out nearly 300 bag lunches to people living on the street. The experience had left me feeling open, perhaps more vulnerable, more open to suggestion than I otherwise might have been.

“You want something to eat? Okay. Come on, let’s find something,” I reply, definitely not operating in my comfort zone.

“My name’s Carl,” he says, holding out his hand, offering to shake mine.

I take it. It’s filthy and rough, but warm and firm. “My name’s Mike,” I reply. “Pleased to meet you, Carl. Where would you like to eat?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he answers. “Anywhere. Anything you want.” A brief pause. “Thanks for helping me.”

“I don’t really know the town,” I say, “but I think I know where there’s a Subway.”

We start walking. Turns out I know the town even less well than I thought, which means we walk longer than I intended. But it gives us a chance to talk.

Carl is also new in town. Just arrived from Oklahoma. No work there. He thought Nashville might be better.

“Do you have any family?” I ask.

“No. I had a wife, but she died. We never had kids.”

“Do you have any friends?”

“No.”

“Have you found anyone to help you?”

“No, not really. Nobody wants to help you when you haven’t got any money.”

We walk up and around a couple of blocks, then down again as I slowly get my bearings. The whole time I keep thinking, this guy must really trust me, following me down all these dark streets. (I had already decided I trusted him. Asking for money is one thing. Asking for food, something else entirely.)

When I eventually find the Subway, it is already shut for the night, so I decide to take Carl to the little Italian restaurant I had eaten at the night before. For one thing, I know where it is. And since I haven’t eaten dinner yet myself, I decide we’ll both eat. Together.

I walk through the doorway first. The waitress recognizes me immediately.

“My friend and I would like some dinner,” I announce. She smiles at me, then sees Carl. Her face changes, eyes flicker, but just for an instant.

“Of course,” she replies, and shows us to a booth.

As we wait for our drinks and dinner to arrive, I learn more.

Carl has done time. Against his better judgment, he helped a friend who turned out to be not such a “good” friend after all. Carl is a bit vague on the details. The “friend” got off, but Carl did six months, during which he kept his head down. He survived, but didn’t like what he saw, which was enough to make him vow he would never do anything that might get him sent back. Even if it meant living on the streets.

“How long has it been since you’ve slept in a bed?” I ask.

“A long time.”

“How long has it been since you were in prison?”

“Nine years.”

Our pizza arrives.

“I’ll never forgive myself,” Carl says during a pause in the meal.

“What for?” I ask.

“When my wife died… I didn’t go to the funeral. I was in prison. She wasn’t really my wife, we were common-law. They said it didn’t count, so they wouldn’t let me go…”

“That doesn’t sound like it was your fault,” I reply. “I don’t think you have anything to feel guilty for…”

“I visited her grave when I got out…”

And so it goes. We talk and eat.

“I know you’ve helped me, you’ve fed me, and I thank you for that,” he says when our meal is almost done. “But could I have five dollars, to buy some food tomorrow?”

The lack-of-cash problem hadn’t magically disappeared for me either, but I do have a credit card, so I wave the waitress over. I ask her how we can do this, if she can change the amount on the bill and then give me some cash back. She goes to check with her boss, comes back a few minutes later. Her boss has left the building, she says. She can’t find him, but she’s pretty sure she can’t change the amount on the bill without getting into trouble.

She hesitates. “If you want, though, you can add whatever you need as a tip, then I can give it back to you.” I double the amount: half for her, half for Carl.

“Thanks for helping me,” Carl says again, when we finally part ways back on the street.

I shake his hand. “Take care, Carl.”

I stand there for a while, watching as he walks away to find the sleeping bag he stashed. Then I turn and go back into the restaurant. I walk up to the waitress, place my hand on her arm. “Thanks for helping me. You didn’t have to do that.”

She smiles. “Not a problem.”

Back in the hotel room, I start packing my suitcase. I have an early flight home. I turn on the television for company. American Idol lights up the screen. It’s down to the final two contestants, each of whom has named a person who mentored them, who started them on their journey to stardom. The two mentors have been invited on the show, and now it’s time… Each of them will receive a thank-you gift from their respective protégé, courtesy of the sponsor…the keys to a brand new car…!

But that’s not all! Surprise! The contestants get one too, only better. The keys to a brand new Ford Mustang! It’s the American dream. Cue the strobe lights, thunderous applause, shrieks of delight!

I turn off the set. The contrast with the dinner I have just eaten, with the man I have just met, overwhelms me. The flash, the hype, the money… How is it that we find it so easy to lavish more and more on people who already have so much? Adulation, fortune… when all across this land there are people with no home to go to and little food to eat; people crouched down, huddled, living on the streets. People like Carl. People who need help, who sometimes even dare to ask for help, but too often receive nothing.

It occurs to me that a lot of the meaning in life – what you understand to be important and get out of life – boils down to the company you keep. I may not know much, but I know one thing for sure, something I’ve known ever since that night in Nashville. I will always be thankful for the dinner I shared with the man I met on the way to the Wildhorse Saloon.

As we were walking down one of the dark side streets on the way to the Italian restaurant, Carl had turned to me.

“I believe in God,” he said. “I pray to God every night to keep me safe, and I’m so thankful when I wake up.”

Stay safe, Carl. Wherever you may be.

Michael is an editor for Wood Lake Publishing. He was the compiler/editor of The Emerging Christian Way: Thoughts, Stories, and Wisdom for a Faith of Transformation  and co-author of  The Spirituality of Sex. He has spent much of his adult life reflecting on the connection between sex and spirituality, and has edited several books on sexual health and childhood sexual health education. He lives in Okanagan Centre, British Columbia, with his wife, Margaret.

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Categories: Daily Life, Ethics, Featured, Healing and Wellness, Inspiration and Meditation, Mike Schwartzentruber, People, Self worth

Author:Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at woodlakebooks.com

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2 Comments on “A Strange Thing Happened on the Way to the Wildhorse Saloon…”

  1. June 30, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    I am so proud of you Mike. Mom

  2. July 7, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    Hey, I’m not your Mom — but I am proud to call you a friend. In this post and other ways you help us connect with the human story in ways we regularly overlook. It’s precisely that connection with hose beyond our protective bubbles that helps us become more fully human. Thanks!

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