A Soft Touch

My mother told me of the “hobos” from the nearby railroad who would secretly mark her childhood home with signals.  The next traveler passing through would check for the hidden mark somewhere on the farm house.  That way they would know to steer clear, or if the lady inside was a “soft touch” who could be counted on to give them either, food, money, water or work.

My own childhood saw this tradition continued with the signals being replaced by the local phone book.  People passing through town or just down on their luck would dial their way through the church listings until they found a sympathetic pastor.  My father rarely brought them home but he would let them camp in the church parking lot or wash up in the bathrooms.  He had a network of helpers whom he could call upon to fix a car’s broken water pump, or make casseroles appear within the hour.  I asked him years later if at times he felt taken advantage of. “What does that matter?” was his response.

 John 24:44,45 “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?  He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”

As a teenager, I answered my first “down on my luck” call at the parsonage.

“Hey Reverend, I know you probably get these calls all the time but I found Jesus in jail and now I’m out and was hoping you might help me get my car out of hock.”  His name was Lonny and his story was complicated. 

“How much do you need?” I asked. 

“Eighty six dollars,” he replied immediately. 

“Well..” I thought for a second, “I’m not the pastor and I’m broke, but I’ve got a landscaping job lined up for tomorrow and you can have it.  Are you strong?”

He laughed. “F— yeah!” 

I invited him to come over for dinner and sleep at our house, since the job started at 5am with a neighbor two doors up the street.  I knew my parents wouldn’t mind putting up a stranger in need because they were out of town at the time.

An hour later, Lonny’s huge fist was knocking on our door.  He was massive.  His hair was long and greased straight back, exposing a small swastika on his neck.  He came with an incredibly skinny, twitchy friend who’s car was not impounded.  I had called for my own back-up before Lonny arrived, three nice church boys with no swastikas.  I don’t recall “Twitchy’s” name but it looked like his role was to scout the back bedrooms while Lonny kept us entertained in the living room with push-up contests.  I doubt if the friend found anything worth stealing because we didn’t have anything worth stealing.  Twitchy was eager to leave when I offered to drive Lonny back after the job.  We talked into the night about prison and angels and, as Lonny called Him, “the Man upstairs.”

When I got up in the morning, Lonny was gone.  At 3 pm he came walking back from the neighbor’s, sweaty, dirty and a hundred bucks richer.  He tore through their job.  The neighbor wanted him back the next day too but,  “That’s your gig, kid. I would never take it from a friend.”  He finished early enough for us go spring his car from the city’s impound yard.  I wished him well.  He wished me well. 

I never told my parents about their house guest. Somewhere our number is circled or otherwise marked in a public phonebook.