I was shaking. It doesn’t get easier with time. I knew I had to. I promised it to the God of the universe. “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it, because He takes no pleasure in fools. Fulfill your vow,” [Ecclesiastes 5:4] rang in my ears. Standing from behind, diagonally ten meters away from the man, I took a deep breath and made the first step towards the bench he sat on.
“Hi, my name is Andrej. I hope I am not bothering you,” I opened up.
The man put down his newspaper and looked up from behind his small rimless glasses to see what lunatic would approach a stranger in Slovakia on a Sunday afternoon. His look of bewilderment changed into a neutral, almost welcoming expression.
“No. It’s fine,” he answered.
Seizing on the opportunity I added, “I know this will sound random, but every once in while I walk around the city and talk to people about what they think of God and Christianity. Would you be willing to talk?”
To my surprise, he responded, “Yea, sure. Sit,” and he moved to free up some space for me.
He was around fifty-five, with a frail figure and ever wandering eyes. We talked of issues I no longer remember, neither do I remember how much time had passed, only vague images remain, with the exception of the memory of his eagerness to talk.
Suddenly I saw a short, unkempt man walking toward us. He stopped about a meter in front of the bench. I was right. He was a homeless man. As I later discovered, he was in his early fifties and apart from the ragged clothes and the wrinkles and scars which spoke of a tough life, I could see he used to be a good looking man. Numerous necklaces and bracelets hang from his neck and wrists. He reminded me of a roughed up Johnny Depp with short blond hair.
“Good day, gentlemen, I am not like all the other beggars,” he opened up, “I will be honest with you, I need money to buy tobacco and food. I don’t drink. Look at me. Do I look drunk?” He looked at us with earnest eyes waiting for a reply.
He didn’t look drunk so I shook my head.
“Do you have a cigaret?” he asked us both. My fellow talker pulled out a pack and gave one to the homeless man.
Both smoked their cigaret while the homeless man began to unwrap his frustrations.
“They do nothing else but drink. Fucking idiots. Do you know what that piece of shit does to your brain? [He was referring to cheap fruit wine.] Fucking crackheads. And then they go begging, bothering people, with fucking pissed pants,” he spat on the ground and continued, “I am normal. I don’t lie to people, like them.”
I wondered why was he trying so hard to distance himself from other homeless people in the city. But he really was different.
“My name is Luco, or Lucifer, or small English man, that is how people call me,” he introduced himself. All three of us shook hands and Luco went on talking.
After a while, in a brief moment of silence the guy I originally sat next to excused himself, for he had to catch a bus. We shook hands, I wished him a farewell, and he left.
It was only me and the homeless man Luco now.
“Why do they call you Lucifer?”, I asked and invited him to sit next to me.
His eyes watered, after a moment of silence, he replied, “Because I am evil. I am cursed.”
“What does that mean?”, intrigued I asked.
He was dismissive at first, waving off my question. I could see the pain behind his eyes. But he opened up at last. From my experience, there are very few things homeless people are unwilling to talk about if one is respectful and willing to listen. So I listened, to a man in his fifties pouring out his heart through tears and words.
He spoke of his past wrongdoings, the mistakes he had made, “I cannot be forgiven. There is no forgiveness for Lucifer,” he often sighed through tears and a torturous expression.
As a good Christian, I tried to encourage him, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” [1. John 1:9] I read out to him, emphasizing the word all.
“Don’t bring this up to me. I pray three times a day and carry this always with me,” and he pointed to a rosary.
“But when you pray do you ask God to change you or just to forgive you?”, I asked.
“I ask for both, but I can’t be forgiven,” he cried with renewed emotion.
“You know, you should come to our church when you will have a way around,” I encouraged him after we talked more for a good deal of time.
“I will never step a foot inside a church ever again!”, he replied with fervor.
“Why?”, I asked.
And there he shared a story that began my strong bond with this man.
“Do you see that church?”, he pointed to a 15th-century church standing on the city walls behind us, “This winter, in march I think, I went inside. It was open to the public during the hour I came. I wanted to pray. I just wanted to pray. I kneeled down in one of the aisles and I wept and prayed. I was exhausted. I got kicked out of charity accommodation the night before and I had to sleep on the street in the cold. I barely slept. As I was praying I fell asleep. I was woken up by someone shaking me and urging me to get out. It was the priest. Would you believe it? It was the priest! ‘I just wanted to pray,’ I told him. He would not listen and insisted on me leaving. I did not want to cause trouble so I complied and there I was once again in the cold kicked out from a church by a fucking priest when I wanted to pray,” he paused and then concluded, “I will never go to a church again. All priests are pricks. God I love but Church? No.”
I was overwhelmed with emotion. What do you say to such an experience? Nothing in my Christian handbook had advice for such a situation. Saying that not all priests are the same does nothing to the disappointment he went through. So I just went on listening and feeling, for him, for life. The more I listened to his other stories, about life on the street, about his family, about his former mistress, the closer I felt to him. Luco became a friend, and I hope I was one to him.
After I got home that day I couldn’t stop thinking of Luco. How could I help him? I hoped we would meet again. And we did.
I met Luco on my adventures through the city a few more times. [If you want to find out more about my motivation behind these adventures see my essay, Christian Pessimism.] Of the times we met and spoke I have a mix of memories where a timeline is difficult to draw. Yet one memory stands out.
I was walking by a park in our city center on a cold spring afternoon and saw some homeless people sitting on benches. It was always easier to start a conversation with a homeless person, walking by was often enough to initiate a comment and you could take it from there. I was terrified at that time. It had been a long time since I went out to the streets. Although I’ve done it tens of times, it never felt easier. But I gave a promise, a promise I had to and wanted to fulfill.
Since no sane person who had a choice would sit around the park at this time of the year with this kind of weather, I had no other choice than to go and talk to the homeless group. When I got closer I was suddenly at ease. I saw Luco sitting two benches away from the group, rolling a cigaret. He looked worse than ever, bruises on his face, ragged oversized clothes, wounded hands, I wondered what happened.
“Hey, Luco,” I approach smiling.
Luco looked in my direction with a confused face, lower jaw hanging.
“It’s me, Andrej, don’t you remember me?”
His eyes flashed and his lips turned into a smile.
“Andrej!”, he exclaimed, “What brings you here? Welcome, welcome! Here, sit, sit” he pointed at the bench.
“I came to see you,” I replied, “How are you doing Luco?”
He looked away and shook his head.
“Not good Andrej, not good,” he sighed and took a sip from a wine bottle he had next to him.
“Luco, I didn’t know you drink? Didn’t you say you don’t drink?”
Flashes of disappointment went through his face.
He murmured something to himself and added, “It’s them,” pointing at the group of homeless people, “They have a bad influence on me. Man, I tried. I can’t. I don’t have the strength to fight anymore,” his voice trembled and broke into sobs.
“I can’t cry. They can’t see me crying. They can’t see you are weak. They will use it against you,” Luco tried to quickly collect himself.
Resting my hand on his shoulder I tried to comfort him.
“Andrej,” he looked at me with a penetrating, watered gaze, “I want to be better, but I can’t. I don’t have the power to change myself. I tried so many times…”
“God has the power to change you as He had changed me. Ask God for help Luco, He is more than capable,” I rushed in help.
“Yea, I pray and pray and nothing changes. Don’t tell me I don’t try. I used to go to the cross next to that church,” pointing in the direction of the church on the city walls, “and on my knees, I prayed there every single morning from 6:30 until 7:00, in cold, in rain, every morning. Don’t tell me I don’t try.”
Yet again I mumbled some encouragement, but what do you do, what do you say? You have a hand on a man in his fifties, battered by life, close to a collapse that finds solace in alcohol after a long time abstaining. What do you do? How can you help?
We talked some more, that was the most I could do at the time. Looking back I asked stupid questions, but with pure intent. I wanted to help Luco and the only way I saw was through God, but that evidently did not help. He first and foremost needed someone to share his burden with.
“I want the best for you Luco,” I concluded a part of our conversation that escaped my memory.
Luco sat with his head hanging, resting his elbow on his knees, his back hunched when he abruptly sat up straight, turning in my direction. He seized me by my shoulders with a strong grip that always surprises me with homeless people and although I probably weighted almost twice as him, he turned me to face him. He looked deep into my eyes, for a prolonged moment without blinking.
“What does he see?”, I wondered, “Did I mean what I said?”
After seconds of his deep gaze that all people who went through hell have, his face deformed in an expression of excruciating pain and he turned away with tears.
“You have honest eyes. I see goodness in your eyes,” he sobbed.
I did not know what to say. I kept silent, while tears began filling up my eyes.
“I want the best for you Luco,” I repeated.
Hunched and looking in front of him, he smiled. It wasn’t a smile of gladness. The swift change in emotion made it look almost devilish.
He sat up straight once again and with a straight face gazed into my eyes for a second time, now for longer.
“Your eyes are clear. You have honest eyes,” he repeated and his eyes filled with new tears, while still gazing into mine.
Few things compare to this experience in their emotional intensity in my life. There I was sitting with a man, devasted by life, who had no one to talk to about his struggle because of the risk of appearing weak, and he had to question even my sincerity of wishing him well. You know, I also then questioned my sincerity behind this whole promise, but about that sometime later. However, I knew I wanted the best for him. I truly wanted him to be free from suffering, free from the influence of his group, free from himself.
I don’t remember what followed only that we talked. The last memory of the encounter is of me asking him if he needs anything. We went to the nearest supermarket and I bought him something to eat and drink for the day.
After his many thanks, we were close to parting ways.
“You are a good man Andrej,” he said with his deep gaze and a slight smile as we shook hands, “You are a good man.”
This was the last time I talked to Luco. I’ve seen him twice since then, both times in an unfortunate condition. Once as he was standing against a wall in a heated argument with another ragged looking man. It didn’t look heated enough to get hostile, so I just passed by. The other time was while I was walking through a shopping center in winter and Luco, glassy-eyed in an oversized jacket, covering his entire hands and hanging almost to his knees, passed by me, lifeless, the worst I’ve seen him. I thought of turning and talking to him, but for some reason, I didn’t. That was the last time I saw Luco.
After talking to a different homeless man not too long ago I know he is still alive, but not doing very well.
Anywhere you are Luco, I hope you won’t give up. I hope you find the strength to fight, to keep on moving. You are a good man, and you deserve forgiveness. I am rooting for you, my friend.
So why did I write down this memory?
There are a few reasons.
I wanted to write an essay on why I love to talk to homeless people, and I might do so later, but I realized it would chiefly be about the people I met on the street over the years thus I decided to capture one of them on paper first.
I wanted to capture the memory of Luco specifically because the memories of our conversations are some of the strongest I have. I can’t explain why or how, but Luco changed me. At a minimum, he deepened my ability to emotionally experience the world. At the highest, he made me love people more, especially the less fortunate.
I wanted to capture the memory of Luco because the thought of his death struck so intensely that I realized how much I care for this man.
I wanted to elevate homeless people, members of our society that are often disdained, look down upon.
I wanted to show their complexity, emotions, pains, their struggle.
I wanted to see if I can retell a memory of a man, at least partly as I had the chance to experience him, and thereby show both the goodness and the pain that lies in this group of people.
And some more. I don’t remember.
If Luco’s story touched you go and talk to a homeless person to gain a story of someone else, and if you will be able to, maybe even help someone on their rough path through life.
See ya next time.