“Bill is dead,” a members of the parish told me. He and a social worker were in my office discussing the ongoing drama of his plight from safely housed to on the streets and back into good housing. I was trying to be clear with him (and the social worker) that he could not keep “firing” the people who are assigned to help him survive. He is now on his third or fourth set of case managers, each representing different efforts of the state to help him navigate his life. I wanted to be sure this current caseworker knew her job security should not depend upon this case. Then it just spilled out, “Bill is dead.” I knew immediately which “Bill” he was talking about. I did not know he knew Bill and I don’t know how he knew I knew Bill. Bill is not a member of the parish. I guess he knew if there was someone in the neighborhood tending toward quirky, I must know them. Of course, he was right.
Bill is an old man who drives a very old, faded, dented car and lives in the neighborhood. Bill spends a good deal of time at St. Paul’s South (known by some as Starbucks located on the south end of our block). He wears a worn set of clothes, maybe even the same clothes everyday. His hair is long (12+ inches), white, and radiates in every direction from his head, creating an aura of “wild & crazy” surrounding his face. He arrives each morning early, orders a cup of oatmeal, a cup of coffee, and reads the papers from cover to cover. Sometimes he sits there all day. When I walk by him on my way to order coffee, our exchange is regularly: Me, “Good morning Bill” and Bill, “Well good morning preacher, what’s good today?” Me, “Just another great day, Bill” and Bill, “That it is.” Rarely he asks a question or comments on the weather. But always, a cheery disposition and a welcoming smile, albeit with a hair style like Einstein’s on steroids. And so it has gone for a long time.
I stop by St. Paul’s South on the way home. For whatever reason, most of the morning crew is still here. I walk up to the counter; Laura greets me and asks what I want. “Bill is dead,” I reply, “I am not sure when, maybe last week. I don’t know anything else right now.” A look of shock and sadness crosses her face. She softly calls to the others and tells them. Sam, a young barista turns away, toward the Delonghi, lips trembling. I have been out of town for several days; they missed him and wondered if something might have happened. “We thought about calling the police,” Sam said. I apologize for being so blunt and telling them while they worked, but for years I watched them care for this old man and knew they should be told. We share a few “Bill” stories, the line of customers backing up all the while. Then it is time for me to move aside for the next vanilla latte with caramel drizzle, or tall blonde, or whatever to be ordered.
Bill is dead. I don’t know his last name. I don’t know his story. I don’t know the daughter who called and left messages at Starbucks for him because she had no other way to contact him. I know I will miss him and our regular exchange. Bill was our quirky neighbor. Like a talisman, his greeting was an affirmation of a good day. I suspect this was so for many who passed Bill each morning as they stopped by St. Paul’s South to get coffee.
I wish I had asked him to tell me a story . . .