“…and may we love our neighbours as ourselves
by drawing them all with our whole strength to Your love
by rejoicing in the good fortunes of others…
and by sympathizing with the misfortunes of others…”
-Francis, The Prayer Inspired by the Our Father
The first time I saw him, he was passed out in the grass, sprawled across the ground like a great, fallen oak.
Chris and I were handing out sandwiches in the park. It was my first summer in Modesto, and we were still finding our way in “ministry to the homeless”.
“I’ll take one for ‘im,” one of his buddies said, “I’ll give it to him later.”
We left him with a little lunch bag and a bottled water.
The next time I saw him, he was sitting at a picnic table, drunk and pathetic. We were handing out day-old bread from our ambulance. Every Thursday, we came down to the park with a load of bread and pastries we received from the local gospel mission. We packed stacks and stacks of boxes into our ministry vehicle: an old, gutted ambulance someone had donated to us. We affectionately called her Big Whitey.
I stood outside Big Whitey, as volunteers and friends helped to direct the large crowd of people toward their bread and desserts. I noticed him sitting at the picnic table looking rather forlorn. I went and sat down across from him.
“Hey, man,” I said. “You doin’ okay? Can I get you something?”
He looked up at me with the biggest, saddest, grey-blue eyes I’d ever seen. “Can I have a pie?”
“Sure,” I smiled. “I can get you a pie. Hold on a sec.” And I went to the van to recover an apple pie for the man. I set it down on the picnic table.
“Thank-you!” he blubbered.
“Are you okay, man? What’s troubling you?” I asked.
He began to weep, and as he spoke, the big man’s voice took on the squeak of a crying little boy. “I lost my keys!” he said. “I’m stayin’ in my sister’s back yard and I got drunk and I lost my keys!”
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
“She’ll be so mad at me. I’m in a camper in her yard and I lost my keys cuz I got drunk!”
“It’s okay, man. It’ll be okay. Would you like me to get you a pie for your sister? Would that help?”
He blubbered and whimpered. “Yeah!”
A moment later I came back with another apple pie, and he wept out another, “Thank-you!”
“My name’s Aaron, by the way,” and I offered him my hand.
“Aaron?” he sniffed, “I’m Arley.” He pointed at his left hand. There, on the back of his hand, tattooed in blue, was written in childlike script, “A - r -L - i - E”.
“I did that when I was fourteen,” he sniffed. “I spelled it wrong.”
“But it’s a good way to remember who you are,” I said. “It’s always right there.”
“You want a cigarette?” I asked.
I had begun carrying a pack of cigarettes with me. Personally, I mostly stuck to my trusty pipe, but I found that having a cigarette handy was a great way of starting a conversation with a homeless person. I pulled out two cigarettes and placed them on the picnic table. Before he even touched the cigarettes, Arley scooped up my hands into his big, calloused mitts, and broke down weeping.
“Thank-you, man! Oh, thank-you!” he cried.
“That’s okay, Arley,” I replied. “That’s okay.”
The next time I saw Arley, he was sober. I think it was the first time I’d actually seen him standing up. He was in the park, and he walked with the gait of a grizzly bear on two legs.
“I’m doin’ a lot better today,” he said. “I ain’t been drunk seen the last time you saw me.”
As he spoke, I heard a calm southern drawl come out, one that I hadn’t heard in the slurred speech of the drunk I’d first met. Arley told me he was from Arkansas. Though he’d been born here in California at a migrant workers camp straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, his family had moved back to Arkansas when he was still very little. He was the last of twelve kids. His life had taken him everywhere from oil rigs to Folsom Prison, and even though he’d been in Modesto for a long time now, he called himself a hobo. As I saw him more and more at the park, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober, I learned more and more of his story. Sometimes I had cigarettes to give him, and sometimes I rolled his rollies for him, because he was too drunk to roll them himself. When he was sober, he was relatively at peace, but when he was drunk, he was the same weeping mess I’d first met.
It was on one of his drunk days, with tears streaming down his face, that he would ask me the most important question of our friendship.
“Can you get me a Bible?”
“Of course, Arley. I’d be happy to.”
A week later, I presented him with a good translation I’d found with big, readable letters. He was sober, but he thanked me and thanked me and thanked me with the earnestness of a drunk.
Over the next few weeks, I’d see him from time to time. We’d sit down at the picnic table. I’d give him a couple of cigs, and we’d talk.
“Man, those Psalms,” he’d say, shaking his head slightly and looking off to the sky over my left shoulder, “Those are powerful. Powerful.”
When I first got to know Arley, he was drunk, bad drunk, just about every other time I saw him. But something was changing, and soon I began to see “sober Arley” much more often than “drunk Arley”.
One day, when I was off on one of my adventures, sober Arley was talking with Jimmy about those Psalms. He stared off into the sky above Jimmy’s left shoulder. When his eyes came back to meet Jimmy’s, there was a tear in one of them. “He bought me that Bible with his own money,” he said.
Arley loved to read it, and every time I’d see him, he’d speak in that gentle drawl of his, like a cowboy addressing his horse. “That’s quite a book,” he’d say. “Powerful, powerful stuff.”
I wondered if that book, like the tattoo on his hand, was beginning to remind him of who he really was.
Months later, I sat next to Arley at a barbecue the church was putting on for the homeless community. Chris was singing with his blues band, a band that came together for events such as this. He was belting out a song about heaven, and as the song came to its crescendo, Arley turned and looked me straight in the eye and offered his hand.
“Hi,” he said, “My name is Arley Preston Robinson, child of God and True Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ!”
“Hi, Arley,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
It was just a few years later that Arley Preston Robinson was with us while we visited Ninth Street, a horrible and holy place we’d begun visiting some time before. Arley had truly become one of the team, a real friend, and he loved coming with us to be with people who were, as he once had been, desperately lonely. We pulled our relatively new van (a significant upgrade from Big Whitey, God rest her soul) into the Arrow Inn one Friday morning, and began distributing some bread and donated clothing we happened to have that week.
Jessica came to pick out some clothes. Jessica was about thirty years old, with feathered hair, earrings, short shorts and a tight tank top. Jessica’s make-up was a bit garish, but had obviously been applied carefully. Jessica was also a man. He perused the table and picked out a frilly top, and began rummaging through a box of shoes. Arley stood by the table, and I wondered what he might be thinking as he watched this young man.
Very few things that come out of Arley’s mouth can ever be predicted, and true to form, he surprised me.
“I like yer nail polish!” he chuckled.
“Thank-you,” said Jessica. He did not speak with any affected tone, which somehow made his appearance all the more strange.
“What’s yer name?” asked Arley.
“Jessica, I’m Arley,” he said, offering his hand. Jessica received it as Arley said, “Yeah, that’s a good colour for you.”
“Thank-you,” said Jessica, and flashed a quick smile. “I’m looking for pumps,” he said, quite serious. “Do you have any in my size?”
“Well I don’t know,” said Arley. “What size are ya?”
Arley and Jessica had no luck finding pumps in Jessica’s size, but Arley did manage to find him a nice apple pie. Somehow, to my amazement, this unlikely pair, the hobo and the cross-dresser, had made a connection. A few minutes later, they were sitting on the steps of Jessica’s motel room. I watched the two of them as I distributed bread. Arley put his arm around Jessica’s shoulder.
Later, as our little group pulled away in the van, I asked him what he and Jessica talked about.
“Oh we just chatted,” he said. “I asked him, ‘Now what’s yer true name?’ He said it was Claude. I told ‘im I’d try to find him some nice shoes this week.”
The following Friday, Arley hopped into the van to visit Ninth Street with us. In a little black grocery bag, he carried a pair of large women’s pumps. But we didn’t see Claude that week, nor the next. We didn’t know if we’d ever see him again.
A few years later, we were on Ninth Street again, handing out hot drinks, donuts and bread at a nice, open spot by the bus stop. A man approached to get some coffee. In front of him was a thin-framed black woman, who was quite demonstrative, scattered, and somewhat out of her head. She bumped him, and the man snapped. A tirade of epithets and threats came out of his mouth.
The man was obviously profoundly mentally disturbed. Our friend Josiah intervened and tried to diffuse the situation and create some distance between the woman and her aggressor. Soon Jimmy stepped in and began talking to the man. Jimmy did his best to calm him down, but as Jimmy spoke with him, he kept looking over Jimmy’s shoulder at Arley.
“Who is that guy?” the man scowled.
“That’s our friend Arley,” Jimmy told him.
The man scowled a moment longer, his eyes set hard on Arley. “I want to talk to him.”
A few moments later, Arley approached the man, his eyes determined and kind.
“You want a cigarette?” Arley asked.
The man nodded.
The two of them sat down on the curb and began to talk. I watched from where I was seated. I didn’t recognize the man, but the scene seemed familiar. Arley put his arm around the man’s shoulders. The two of them bowed their heads. Arley was praying for him. Eventually the two of them stood, and Arley held the man like a father holding his son. In that moment, I couldn’t help but remember the fallen oak and the weeping wino I’d first met just a few years before, and I choked back a sudden onrush of tears.
As the two let go of their embrace, Arley said something to the man, as if in benediction, and the man walked on in peace.
As we piled into the van to leave, I asked Arley who that man was.
“You remember Claude?” he asked.
“Oh my gosh,” I said. “That was Claude?”
“That was Claude,” Arley said. “He remembered me.” Arley gazed out the window into the sky above the city. “We had a good talk.”
I had spent the morning writing the first part of this story. That afternoon, I received a call from Chris. Arley had passed away. I’d been able to see him just a week before he died, over about two days. Years ago he had moved out of the camper that had been permanently parked in his sister’s back yard, and had instead created a little dwelling place for himself back there. He called it the Hobo Shack.
He was always working on the Hobo Shack. Tweaking a little something here, adjusting a cardboard and plywood wall there, and over the years he collected a few comforts. We had an old couch at the church that we gave him. It fit perfectly, and became his bed. He found a discarded TV in an alleyway. He made a space for that. He found an old rooftop TV antenna. He mounted that on the fence and hooked it up. We had an old washing machine that needed a new home. He took that, and christened it with a black marker: “HOBO WASH”. Eventually, he even got himself a refrigerator. As the Hobo Shack became more refined, he began to call it the Hobo Hilton.
That last week before he died, I came to the Hobo Hilton to see him.
“Come on in,” he said. And there he was, the fallen oak, reclining on the couch that also served as his bed, in the tiny but homey hovel he called his house. I knew he had been ill over the last few months, but I was a bit alarmed to see how little energy he had. It had really taken its toll. But underneath it he was still himself, the irascible curmudgeon and S.O.B. who truly loved the God who had saved him.
He always liked people to think he was still mean, but his kindness knew depths unmatched by many, and he loved to give gifts whenever he could. Perhaps it would be something he found in an alleyway, or a toy from the dollar store for my friends’ kids, or some other thoughtful thing he thought somebody needed. On my birthday, that last year before I left Modesto, he even let me beat him at a game of dominos at the Ninth Street Café.
“I want to give you somethin’ for your birthday,” he said as he puffed his cigarette. “You wasn’t here but I want to give you somethin’.”
He pulled out a small package, wrapped in paper towel and electrical tape. I tore it open to find his gift. A pack of Marlboros and a pink Bic lighter. For years now, his running joke had been to give me “Pinky” whenever he bought a pack of lighters.
I laughed. “Pinky! Thanks, man!”
We spent the afternoon together. He and his sister had recently come into a little money when a relative had passed away, and it was becoming a very hot summer. The Hobo Hilton would have one final addition, and the two of us trekked off to Wal-Mart to find it. An air conditioner. We brought the small unit back to the shack, and eventually had it hooked up to the Hilton. He cut a square through the curtain / wall at the foot of the couch, and we set the unit on a little end table there. Soon the AC was purring like a kitten, and cooling down the Hobo Hilton.
Before I left, we had to enjoy his birthday gift together. My first gifts to him were pie and cigarettes. His last gifts to me were Pinky and a pack of Marlboros. The Marlboros are gone, having been forgotten and washed in a pair of cargo shorts (which was probably for the best), but Pinky is right here in my pocket, and I thank him for it whenever I light my pipe.
Thank-you, Arley, for helping me to learn what love is. Thank-you for being a true and loyal friend.
Welcome to that Heaven Chris was singing about.
Arley Preston Robinson, child of God and True Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, welcome to the Heaven you were made for.