An attempt to modernize this moment in the gospel of Luke.
Herd of Pigs
It was that same smell that always smacks into you on that same corner: that revolting blend of stale alcohol and dried urine. We always quickened our pace around that corner, a sort of unspoken pact, anxious to get to the light and cross to the cleaner side of the street. But he was there today, marinating in his own filthy odor and trash. As he sensed our approach, he began spewing his senseless fragments:
“Adime t’day? Shum change?”
“How abow shum help for a body down on he sluck.”
“You kids got shum money?”
I looked over at my brother, who stood staring unabashedly at the desolate man. This corner, this man, seemed, for my brother, as much a part of our Friday routine as swimming at the Y, candy at Michelle’s, and reading magazines at the library. I could see the subtle fascination creep over his face. He just lives like that. Lives. Why doesn’t he do something for himself? Like stop lying in his own filth for one thing. Clean himself up. Fix it. The complete helplessness, total surrender to inebriation, depravity of drunkenness, do not yet exist in my brother’s reality. The sparkle of manifest destiny still saturates completely his every perspective. His childlike blindness, his dreams, his “you can be whatever you want to be,” his blissful inexperience with the realities of darkness prevent him from seeing the stark disappointment this corner showcases so blatantly. The look of mystification vanishes as we both take in the man waiting to cross on the opposite corner of the street.
“Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!” The voice bellowed simultaneously to both everybody in range and nobody in particular. His cardboard sign swung violently to his side as he jabbed the walk signal button. I pulled my brother behind me as the drunk pushed himself to his feet, sloshing like the past night’s nectar, and stumbled to the streetlight where we stood waiting for our chance to walk.
“Whadda you wan wif me, preacher?” He shouted, gulping in mouthfuls of air to recover from his feat of standing and waddling to the streetlight. “I beg of you, don you come and torment me like all dothers.”
The street evangelist removed his bulky sunglasses, and stared at the drunken mass quivering pitifully and clinging to the light post. His gaze seemed to push the inebriate methodically to the hot cement. His tortured breathing continued as he attempted to block the sun’s constant glare from his view of the preacher.
“He’s coming this way!” My brother’s terrified whisper drew my attention from the rank mass of man shaking below us to the aggressive stride of the street preacher quickly approaching. I jerked my petrified brother to the cool brick wall of the building beside us, making room for the preacher to pass.
“What is your name?” His voice, somehow calm and soft now close by, pierced the abhorrent lump of a man, sent him flailing, without control of his arms, legs, bodily functions.
“Rife.” The man shouted suddenly sober and controlled. “Don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!”
“Be clean.” Whispered the preacher. He dropped his sign to the ground beside the drunk, and kneeled down next to him, still whispering. Traffic resumed in the opposite direction, we had missed our light unconsciously transfixed by what happened before us. A city bus ambled to a stop a block away, now picking up speed to make the green light. The drunk’s thrashing worsened. Limbs shot back and forth, finally propelling the man uncontrollably into the road. The preacher raised his voice, his incomprehensible incantations sounded mystic and seemingly potent and effective on the violent drunk. My brother gasped, stifling his scream with sighs of hyperventilation. The bus careened into the light post, just missing the bum, now sprawled over the crosswalk, but lying still.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Demanded the driver, jumping from the dented bus door. The drunk sat up and looked over the scene, like he’d just woken up. “You,” continued the driver, shaking an aggravated fist at the preacher, “you saw all this. What’d you do? You push this bum into the road? Look at my bus!” Passengers filed out behind the driver, a siren sounding in the distance, and bystanders shoved excitedly past my brother and myself.
The bum pulled himself to his feet with an ease that surprised and perplexed him. He took two eager steps forward, then skipped once, jumped three times, and danced his way to the preacher’s side. The preacher smiled, but murmurs from the crowd clouded the conversation between them.
“I seen you before. I see you every day on my route. Both of yous! You’re that worthless drunk. Always begging, just a disgusting piece of trash! And you’re that trouble maker! You walk around here with your sign, yelling at people. Street preacher. Nuisance! Look at my bus! Look what you did. I can’t believe I’m losin’ my job for your sake. Save the life of a worthless bum and I’m outta work.” The bus driver’s rant flowed on, rallying the crowd to his cause. All the while, I began to wonder if my brother and I were the only ones privy to the change that had come over the drunk. His speech was now clear, concise. He was joking, laughing with the preacher, free. “This is my livelihood! I’m gonna lose my job. You don’t crash a bus and go back to drivin’ the next day. No. I’m outta work. Because of this worthless drunk. This was a good payin’ job. Back to the unemployment office for me. My wife’s gonna kill me. Who’s gonna pay for this? Look at that bus!”
The police arrived and began taking reports, preparing pictures, exchanging information. They briefly placated the driver, and accosted Rife like a familiar patron. Snippets of their conversation emerged in the lull of the crowd. The police surrounded Rife, who remained standing, tall, sincere, confident.
“Rife, this is your third strike. You remember what we agreed on?” Rife’s mumbled reply was inaudible.
“What’re you on, Rife? You doin’ something bigger than whiskey?”
“Sir, he isn’t normal. You think that preacher gave him something?”
“Preacher! Get over here.” The cops’ circle opened to include the preacher. Their discussion continued, the preacher remaining, for the most part, silent.
“He saved me, gentlemen. Freed me. He didn’t give me anything but life.” The bum’s composure seemed to push the cops, anger them.
“Preacher, I’m going to ask you one last time, what’d you give him?”
“You did something to this man. And I’m going to find out what. In the meantime, I want you to look around you. You totaled a bus, destroyed this street light, cost a man his job, all for some worthless drunk who’ll be back on the bottle tomorrow. Now we can’t prove anything now, but we will. And I recommend you laying low and keeping away from trash like this guy until you’re cleared.”
“But gentlemen, he saved me!” Rife’s argument fell to deaf ears as the police’s attention turned back to damage assessment. The preacher turned and began to walk back across the street from which he’d come.
“Let me come with you!” Rife called out, noticing the preacher had ventured away.
“No,” said the preacher. “You tell everybody how much God has done for you.” The preacher smiled again briefly, and turned and walked on. Rife stared after him, disappointed, confused. He stumbled forward after the preacher, tripping over the cardboard sign the preacher had dropped during his visitation. Rife gently picked it up, dusted it tenderly. His eyes flickered. He hoisted the sign proudly above his head and proclaimed,
“Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand! And it’s a good place to be... let me tell you!” He trailed off, breaking up the crowd and walking backwards up the route the bus had taken.
“Crazy fool!” The bud driver called after him.
I gently lead my brother back to the street light. We pressed the button and waited, two more blocks until we reached the library.