Friday, May 7, 2010

People who've made a difference in my life

Jimmy Washington 

Many years ago I happened to walk into a church in Brooklyn around the corner from my apartment. It was a neo-Gothic edifice, decorated with elaborate stencils from the Arts & Crafts Movement. Think William Morris, simplified. The year before I arrived the church had a fire. The roof had been patched, and the floor re-made with plywood; most of the pews had been replaced. But the rest of the place was pretty much a mess.

I liked the people as much as I liked the building, and ended up staying. I was single and had time on my hands, so I showed up for work days aimed at restoring the church. One thing led to another, and somehow I became the buildings manager. It was a kind of odd thing to do with my weekends, but I liked the quiet work of painting walls and designing stencils. I spent most of my Saturday and Sundays there.

One day while I was painting, a street person walked in. The pastor greeted him; apparently Jimmy showed up fairly frequently for food and other handouts. Jimmy was dirty but friendly, and I was warned that he was a rough character. I said hello whenever he showed up, went on with my work, and talked with him as much as our non-overlapping worlds allowed.

Time passed, and one Saturday Jimmy came in, bleeding. He'd been hit on the head with a brick in an altercation with another homeless person. I stopped what I was doing, got some ice from the parish hall, and applied direct pressure to the wound. It was messy, the way head wounds are. When Jimmy was feeling a little less woozy we let him go, advising him to head for the hospital but knowing he'd probably never go.

After Jimmy left and I'd washed up the pastor pulled me aside. "Julia," he said slowly, "I have to tell you something. Jimmy has AIDS."

This was the late 1980's; if you got AIDS, you died. I'd mopped up a pile of Jimmy's blood. I knew what that meant.

I went home, oddly numb. I knew it would be months before I could be tested for HIV. I probed my feelings, and found I was certain I'd done the right thing. If I had to die of AIDS, the hands-down best way to acquire it would be by helping someone. The next day I went to the pharmacy and bought purple latex gloves, the kind paramedics wear, to carry in my bag. I didn't want to be afraid to help whoever needed me.

Jimmy continued to show up at the church, and I talked to him more frequently. He was never rude, though he was still a rough fellow. He got in fights, and showed up drunk. He was a con artist who would try to cadge anything off of you he saw. Jimmy eventually moved into the AIDS home run by Mother Teresa's nuns -- and he did something bad enough there (I didn't ask what) to get kicked out.

Jimmy changed me. When I walked down the streets of Brooklyn, I looked for him. I began to look homeless people in the eye, because for the first time in my life I knew one. That man in the doorway might be Jimmy. That panhandler could be someone I could call by name.

I don't remember when Jimmy died, though I remember him almost daily. I think of him every time I pass a homeless person, because Jimmy made me a more human human being.

Oh -- and fortunately, I never got HIV. 

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