It was Thanksgiving Day, 1997. That's when I first met John. I'd seen him before, sitting on the sidewalk on the main street, selling his "art." He was about 60 years old at the time, hair askew, and dressed in an old coat, worn out shoes and shorts. He wore shorts all year round, usually the same pair, no matter the weather or temperature. John was a panhandler and I avoided him, intimidated by how uncomfortable I felt when he tried to make contact with me while I was passing, which was often. He'd be attempting to sell his artwork to passersby, pieces of paper or cardboard that he had found and applied wild color and distorted imaged to. Most people ignored him completely, as though he were invisible. I couldn't tell if he was mentally impaired or crazy or both.
That Thanksgiving Day everything changed. Perhaps from misplaced feelings of pity, I decided to buy one of his postcards. He was delighted. He tried to find the best one, and then decided I should have several. He had a new series of "postcards" that he was fashioning with frayed paper and Popsicle stick frames. He retrieved them from an old canvas shopping bag, one of several he carried with him at all times. It was the best way to gather art supplies, he informed me. John reeked of garlic. Later, I learned he ate it raw every day for his health.
At the conclusion of this transaction, John asked if he could visit me sometime. Disoriented by the question, I mumbled "ok". "What's your address," he asked to my horror. I quickly gave it to him and scuttled away, certain he would forget. Three weeks later, on a Sunday morning, I saw an apparition wander up the street where I lived. It was wearing shorts and carrying several shopping bags. It called my name. Oh my God, I thought to myself. What now?
John arrived full of amiable greetings and a request to visit for a while. He had brought me more of his latest work and would I like to see it? I invited him in to get him off the front porch, so the neighbors wouldn't see us together and start speculating.
In he came. He plunked himself down on the floor in the hallway of my house and began rooting through his bags. By now my family was gathering, shocked witnesses to what was unfolding. As he emptied his bags onto the floor, my alarm grew exponentially. He seemed to be carrying with him every scrap of paper he had ever found. It was filling the hallway. Finally, his search was successful. From out of this mess, he pulled a reasonably good likeness of the church that stood at the top of the hill. "I was having a good day," he explained. "I think I captured it well."
Something about those words and how they were spoken, the humble satisfaction they conveyed, touched my heart. That was the moment that I decided what he had already concluded some time before. I was going to be an arts benefactor. "Can I have something to eat," John asked? "I haven't had breakfast and I have to go to church soon."
That was our first breakfast together. John had breakfast with us every Sunday for three years thereafter. He especially liked peanut butter, which I began buying him in bulk jars. And raw garlic. And bacon and eggs. He would bring me his recent or not so recent work, depending on how he was feeling. We would talk about his life, his schizophrenia, the shock treatments he had endured as a child, his memories of his parents, summer camp, the latest police officer to take him home, the beatings he received on the street. He would sing songs in German, his mother tongue, and educate me about the harsh treatment that the mentally ill were subject to from the budget cutbacks by the government of the day. He was a gentle soul.
A couple of years after our first meeting, when my father died, John was full of kind words. "You have helped me so much. Now I can help you, Patrick," he said. Perhaps he already knew that he had been helping me all along. Helping me to overcome my stupidity and arrogance in dismissing him as a crazy person. Helping me see the dignity that comes from creative expression, no matter what it looks like. Helping me see the power of enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit. Helping me see that a genius of relationship can come in dirty old shorts and boots with holes in the toes.
In the third year of our friendship, John was ill on and off. He had to curtail his walking, which was a disappointment to him. In his prime, he confided, he could walk twenty to thirty miles a day. Although I was worried about him, I wrote it off to the medication he was on, which was very harsh on the body. He hated hospitals and refused to go, likely the residue of his childhood experiences.
When we didn't hear from John upon our return from the cottage that summer my wife phoned the minister at John's church. He gave us the sad news: John had died from a massive stroke. He also told us that we had missed the gathering that had taken place for John in the church hall.
It was completely filled with the patrons of the arts.
© Patrick O’Neill 2008. All rights reserved.