G. was just starting his second shift, 11-to-7, after having finished the 3-to-11 shift thirty minutes before. "I need some MO-NAY!" he says. I wish I had some to share. He shows us the other crime-fighting tools he has on his belt, and explains that most of them were purchased with his own money. Flashlights, night-sticks, handcuffs, guns. His police cruiser is ten years old and showing its age. As he talks, I realize that when his car was new, G. was still a sixteen-year-old offensive lineman at Jackson-Olin High School. When he finished his 30-minute interview with my neighbor's much younger boyfriend, he comes to ask us "What did he do now? I can't figure it out." I have the strange suspicion that Officer G. talks just a little too much.
Some three hours earlier, David and I followed 18th Street over the hump that is Red Mountain back into the belly of the city. One of my favorite views is a panoramic vista of the Jones Valley along that route just below the statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge. Birmingham creeps through the valley and up both sides as if it sprouted from a seed dropped by the need for iron just after the Civil War. I used to have a pastor with a small son who greeted the buildings and the rusted-out furnaces by saying "Hello City! I'm back." I understand. Although it is the world of my youth and experience, I always feel the world outside the city is the place I go to thoroughly embarrass myself. The way I dress, the way I talk, the way I think, the way I walk are just a little different. I've always subscribed to the theory that architecture and environment contribute to human identity. Now I know that if theories can somehow be substantiated by empirical evidence, that one has been. Two years in, I'm different.
The change started as imperceptibly as a morning glory vine creeping up the window. As odd as it sounds, I think it happened over time as I was forced to deal with the homeless. As I was forced to deal with the poor. As I was forced to deal with the drug-addled, the HIV positive, the neglected, the mentally ill. In and of themselves, it isn't so very hard to address issues such as poverty, disease, and destitution. But I'm always flummoxed when I start to wonder how Christ marries these issues. How is Christ manifest in the homeless? How is Christ manifest in the life of a beat-cop who doesn't make enough money to pay the rent after he's purchased his own equipment? When you live in the World Beyond the City, you drive away after a night's boozing and stop thinking about Roosevelt who lives under a bench at Brother Bryan Park. You stop thinking about Fred up the street who sells cocaine out of his apartment. You stop thinking. Here, though, they are always with you. You cannot escape. And as much as you want to change them, as much as you want to help them, they turn around and change you. They hand you a dubious gift wrapped in a dirty newspaper and all that is left is a humble acceptance of something you can't give back. Finally you learn, maybe years later, how much you owe them for that. Thank you city. Thank you neighborhood. Thank you Christ, Healer of the World, who causes the morning glory to grow across my broken window. Hello City! I'm back. I'm back to be embraced by those who don't know how much of a stranger I really am.
(Of course, to be continued....)