I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye as I emerged from the parking deck and headed up North Avenue toward the church. "Pardon me, sir," he called and because I was running a little ahead of schedule for the Christmas concert I stopped to turn and face him. "Merry Christmas," the young man said with a downcast expression on his face, the kind of look that was designed to elicit pity. I returned his "Merry Christmas" and we continued up the street together. "It's hard being on the street this time of year," he said. "Cold. And dangerous." I offered an I-imagine-it-is kind of response, trying to conceive what it must be like being homeless at Christmas time – anytime. "I’m trying to get myself together," he said, getting closer with each sentence to "the ask." "I need some help." I decided that the kindest thing I could do was to spare him the indignity of asking me for change I had no intention of giving him. So I interrupted him with "I’m not going to give you any money, friend, but you are welcome to come with me and listen to some Christmas music." To my surprise, he accepted my offer without hesitation. Larry, he told me his name was. It had been a couple days since he had shaven but his clothes were fairly clean and his jacket was a well-worn denim. He pulled off his knit cap as we entered the foyer and accepted a gold embossed program from a greeter. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was performing their annual Christmas concert for the downtown community and the church was filling rapidly with people in business attire, as well as a good sprinkling of retirees. Larry and I took a seat near the back. "I need some help," he continued. "I'm trying to get myself together." I told him of a ministry I'm on the board of – Blood 'n Fire – where he could get a hot meal and a good night's sleep and, if he were serious, the program would help him to get off drugs and find a decent job. He knew of the place, he said. "But I need some help right now," he persisted. "I’m trying to get myself together." I told him that I give my "help" money directly to this ministry, not to guys I meet on the street. If he wanted help, I would take him down to Blood ‘n Fire. "Yeah, I know what you mean," he responded, "But I need some help right now. I’m trying to get myself together."
Larry asked what I did for a living. How could I concisely describe to him the various facets of our community development work? "I build houses," I answered without going into detail. "I need a job," he reacted before the words had scarcely left my tongue. I explained why I couldn't hire him off the street – didn't know him, didn’t know anything about him, didn't know if he could pass a drug test. He understood, he said. "But I do hire guys who go through Blood 'n Fire's program," I explained, trying to encourage him, "guys that are drug-free and ready to hold down a steady job." Larry looked thoughtful. I wondered if this could be a moment of decision for him, a turning point. After a moment of reflective silence, he responded "But I need some help right now. I’m trying to get myself together."
The orchestra was tuning up. I decided that it would be a more pleasurable concert if I abandoned my efforts to fix Larry and just tried to enjoy his company. I asked him if he liked orchestra music and he said, "It doesn't bother me. I can handle it." It was obvious that this was not the sort of occasion that would soothe his soul. There were other pressing matters on his mind and it was sinking in on him that he was probably not going to get what he wanted out of me. He started to fidget and squirm in his seat, like he was working on an inconspicuous way to exit, when he glanced down our row and connected with a nicely dressed, blonde-haired woman who offered him a cordial smile. "Can I go talk to her?" he asked. "No Larry," I answered with not so much as a hint of ambivalence. "You can't work the crowd in here." He understood. "See you later," he said and, picking up his stocking cap, slipped out of the church the way we had come in. He left his gold embossed program in the pew.
The concert was absolutely inspiring. I was humming strains of Joy to the World as I walked back to the parking deck. I saw Larry cutting across the street, his eye on a fresh group of pedestrians. I wondered if he was feeling badly about the amount of time he had wasted on me.