I had just left the Wedge grocery on Nicollet Ave when a man walking by called me over.
“Could you buy me an orange juice?”
“Sure.” I mean, how else could I respond to a question like that? Of course I can buy this guy an orange juice. Why had no one ever asked me that question before!? I had never felt more sure of anything. “Come on inside.”
He held the door for me as we walked in. “Sometimes you just need some citrus, you know?”
“I totally know.”
“You will be blessed for this.”
“Oh … I don’t need that.” (kneejerk reaction to anything religious: chill out, Z) “I mean, I already feel pretty blessed” (though I prefer the term lucky).
He followed me to the fridge as I found the juice and didn’t give me the opportunity to spend more than a few seconds wondering if I should “give him the change? How much change? I only had a $10 – that was going to be a lot of change…” because he was already back at the door, standing far enough away that it couldn’t become an issue.
I handed him his oj as we walked out. “You have a good evening, sir.”
“You know what the man said: ‘I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.'” He smiled and tapped the bottle twice.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes.” What else was there to say.
“Life is a road, with signs. Right? Like over there,” (he pointed at the corner) “the signs maybe told you to be afraid or something, but ….” He asked my name and gave me a hug and I crossed the street to my car.
The term “angel” applied to people makes me kinda throw up a little. So let me say instead that this gentleman was a guide – a sign worth reading. Christianity has acquired a lot of baggage, but its namesake was a groovy dude, and a pretty good Buddhist. You know the end of that quote he gave me, right? “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for me.”
In my admittedly superficial treatment of biblical texts, I’ve always interpreted that as good old liberal altruism, but another meaning was suddenly clear to me. He was saying that everyone is literally the same entity, not that we should pretend they are. That we are all inextricably part of each other and the whole. As my stoner boyfriend in college said, crying, while on acid, “we ARE Jesus.” That hippie shit was a huge turnoff at the time, but I forgive myself the decades it’s taken me to come around.
I want to be a good person. But I don’t. I don’t want to want to be a good person. I used to love the idea of being a saint: Sacrifice! Suffering! How romantic! That doesn’t interest me anymore. I want to do good things because there is no other option, because I am connected to everything; not because I should be or I think I am. To give not because I feel guilt or generosity but because, as Teddy says in the eponymous Salinger story, “she was god and the milk was god … all she was doing was pouring god into god.” To recognize that helping someone else is simultaneously a totally selfish and totally altruistic act, because they are the same thing.
On a warm autumn evening in Minneapolis, god asked god for god, and god provided. And it was good.