Rick’s Christmas Articles
I saw him long before I got to the intersection: a bald, heavy-set black man with one of those timeless faces. Forty-ish, I guessed. He paced back and forth in front of a crumpled duffel bag. His jeans looked new and were rolled up about three inches at the bottom, revealing white socks and a pair of scruffy black shoes. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt that used to be whiter.
He looked wide-eyed and fearful—scary, actually. He was obviously looking for a ride from someone—any fool who dared to pick him up. The closer I got, the more I urged the light to remain green. But it didn’t. When traffic stopped, the man darted up to the pickup in front of me, but the driver waved him off. He jumped back to his bag and scanned the line of cars.
Before I could look away, we made eye contact. Call it what you will, but in that brief moment, something moved my arm. I waved him over. He crammed both himself and his duffel bag into the front seat. Exhaust from the other cars followed him. The light turned green, and I drove away wondering what I’d done. You don’t pick up strangers these days, especially those who look a little scary. But I put on my Christmas smiley face and extended a hand.
“Hi, I’m Jim.”
He returned a limp handshake. “Michael,” he mumbled.
I pointed to his duffel bag. “Leaving town for Christmas?”
“Doin’ my laundry.”
I was surprised I didn’t get a whiff of alcohol and doubly surprised he didn’t smell like he needed a bath. In fact, he looked unusually neat for a “street person.” (I’d already put him into a social pigeonhole.) About a mile down the road was a laundromat. I asked if that’s where he wanted to go.
“No, the one on East North Street.”
“Why there?” It was on another side of town, considerably out of my way.
“The machines are better.” Then he looked down. “And I don’t get bothered.”
I nodded. The laundromat nearby was in a rough neighborhood. But I wasn’t sure I could take him where he wanted to go. I didn’t have a lot of extra time.
Michael stared straight ahead and spoke as though he’d read my mind. “You can drop me off anywhere. I’ll get another ride.”
C’mon, my internal referee complained. It’s Christmas.
Yeah, and I get Scroogier every year. Not to mention the number of times I’ve been burned trying to help people like him. He’ll be asking for money pretty soon.
And in the close confines of the car, who could tell what would happen? I wondered what might be in the duffel bag besides clothes. People get desperate at Christmas.
Desperate. That was a fair description of my own state of mind. I’d lost all the joy I’d known as a kid when this season came around. The anticipation, the glitter of decorations, and the bright twinkling lights—they’d lost all appeal.
Not even the music cheered me. Although I’d attended church for years, I no longer cared for Christmas and was desperate to see the season end.
Michael began talking about the weather. We were supposed to get snow. He didn’t sound excited, and neither did I. Snow is rare in our southern town. Get a couple of inches and everything grinds to a halt. Such weather would really be hard on someone who walked everywhere or depended on others to offer a ride.
He continued to stare out the front window, never looking in my direction. I was nervous and felt compelled to talk. His sentences were short, sometimes halting, and his voice was monotone.
There were awkward breaks, and then he’d start a whole new subject. But the more he talked, the more I saw a different person from the one who’d climbed into my car.
We approached a major intersection that would be a good place to drop him off. I slowed a little, waiting for the light to turn red. I planned to shake his hand, wish him a Merry Christmas, and then go on my way feeling better about myself.
But that light stayed the brightest green I’d ever seen. That’s when I began to think there was a larger hand at work. As we came to the crossroads, I signaled and turned in the direction he needed to go.
Michael had ceased to be scary. He had, in fact, become interesting. As we drove across town, he pointed out parts that had changed over the years. Many of the changes I’d seen myself, so I knew he was telling the truth. I asked him if he’d grown up in our town. “Oh yes,” he said. And he’d walked every mile of it. I believed him.
We quit talking for a while. In the quiet, I thought of the angel who’d delivered the news to Mary that she’d been chosen to bear the Son of the Most High. His name was Michael, wasn’t it?
I discovered later that it was Gabriel. But the name of the angel didn’t matter. What mattered was Mary’s simple response: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. . . .”
Although I doubted the Michael in my car was an angel, he definitely came with a message—and I was beginning to get it. My response needed to be the same as Mary’s.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the laundromat, I felt sad that the ride was over. Plus, I realized that throughout the entire trip, Michael had never once asked for money.
“Do you have enough to do your laundry?”
“Yes.” He opened his door.
I’d already put a hand in my pocket and pulled out the first bill I felt.
“Here, in case you need a little more. And it’ll help buy your lunch.” I motioned with my head. “There’s a pretty good Mexican place on the corner.”
His eyes widened at the sight of the money. He took it, thanked me profusely, and then climbed out of the car. He waved, slung the duffel bag over a shoulder, and walked toward the glass doors. I waited on him a moment before driving away in poignant thought.
As I pulled into the traffic, I turned on the radio and hunted a station playing Christmas hymns. I sang along with a new heart, a happy anticipation—and not a single desperate thought.
Author’s Note: Michael is a real person. If you’re ever in the Cherrydale area of Greenville, South Carolina, you may see him walking down Poinsett Highway or toweling off a vehicle at Cole’s Car Wash, where he works.
If you see him at an intersection, looking anxious, like he needs to be somewhere and is worried about getting there, then—even if you think you don’t have time—offer him a ride. He’s harmless. And you may find yourself on the larger end of the blessing.
Jim says, a teenager, I dreamed of flying airplanes. But I was thirty years old with a wife and two children before the dream became reality. Now, more than thirty years later, I’ve flown all over the continental U.S., parts of Canada, and the Caribbean. I’ve been places and seen things that were once just images floating around in my head. Maybe you’ve got a few of those. (You can fix that, by the way.)