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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

Pigeon Man

It was late July in Phoenix, and 108 degrees in the shade. I was the first car waiting for the light to turn green at a busy intersection in Phoenix. I could see way to the south as the road disappeared into a kind of wavy fume looking mirage that rose from the pavement and swallowed the low horizon. Even with the air conditioner on high I could feel the sharp sting of the sun through the windshield, almost as if there were a magnifying glass focused in on my arms and legs. An hour before I’d been selling at a Farmers Market and I was just beginning to cool off. A glint of something caught my eye and I turned to see a big shopping cart loaded with all sorts of things being pushed across the intersection by a homeless man. The cart was piled with aluminum cans, an orange roadside cone, bits and pieces of rolled plastic, a few pieces of rebar, and a rearview mirror taken from a car, which dangled from a piece of wire hanging from the side of the cart. That mirror is what reflected light into my eyes. The man pushing it was tall, and dreadfully thin. He had a big mass of fuzzy hair that was either blond, or completely sun bleached, and his skin was as brown as leather. He walked in front of the car, his legs bouncing wildly from heel to toe almost as if he was stepping on something sharp. I looked down and he had no shoes on. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Walking on Phoenix pavement in July with good shoes on can be a blistering experience, I couldn’t imagine what his feet felt like. I watched him cross the road and then over a little strip of decorative gravel until his feet were in the shade of a little short concrete wall about two feet tall. He sat down and put his feet in the shadow of the wall.

The light turned green and I drove south, headed for the gym, but the guy was stuck in my head. How did he lose his shoes? I turned on my blinker and got into the center turning lane, waited for traffic to clear and made a u-turn. I wanted to see what the guy would do next. When I got back he was still sitting there looking around, probably waiting for the sun to go down so he could walk without scorching the soles of his feet off. No one seemed to notice him at all. I wondered if people purposely weren’t acknowledging him because maybe somewhere they’d feel some sense of obligation to help, or if he was just as invisible as the millions of pigeons that haunt every corner of the city? Where he sat was on the far edge of a Burger King parking lot. I parked and walked inside and ordered a meal with a large drink. I took it out to the guy and as I approached I could see him tense just a little. I asked him if he was hungry or thirsty and he said he was. I handed him the meal and he never once looked at me, he just looked at my hands. I felt this weird sense of sadness and sickness that I still can’t explain. I desperately wanted to know what happened to his shoes, but I felt like he was already exposed enough. I walked back to my car and unzipped my gym bag and put my gym shoes on. Then I walked back and gave him the flip-flops I’d been wearing. He looked at them for a long time, the burger in its yellow wrapper held in his dark hand. “Where’d you get them from?” I told him they were spares. I told him they were his. “You didn’t have to do that.” I said, “I know.” I turned to leave and he said, “Hey man…thank you…” I turned back and could see his eyes for the first time. Big blue young eyes in an old face, and again the weird mix of sadness, and heartsickness for him…and gratitude for how lucky I am. I Walked back over and got in my car and drove down and around a little mini mall and then parked where I could see the guy but he wouldn’t know I was watching. He had the flip flops on and he had finished eating. He made room in the cart for the big drink and settled it in. Then he squatted down, butt onto heels and tossed something onto the ground. A little group of pigeons approached cautiously as he tore off little bits of french fries and tossed the pieces to them. I watched until he started rolling the cart away, the pigeons still searching for scraps in the gravel. It seemed like he was tithing a little of what he’d been given.

I have never done a good deed in my life that wasn’t predicated on some sort of reward for me, never. Not once have I given so much as a nickel without patting myself on the back for what a great guy I am. Even as I typed this story, I knew somehow it was all about me.

The Bible says not to let anyone know your good deeds, it says of any good works you do, “Don’t let the left hand know what the right is doing.” In other words, keep them to yourself. There are many, many good deeds I’ve done that no one knows anything about, and every single one I did for myself, my own reward, my own pat on the back, my own heavenly reward, my own earthly reward, for me and no one else. There is not one atom inside me that is capable of doing even the tiniest “Good Deed” that isn’t somehow and in some way self motivated. Because of this selfishness even in secretly done good works, I know it is only God that compels me to do anything for anyone. There isn’t anything in me that’s good, I know that. So it has to be God. God knows what makes me tick, he understands my need for back pats, and affirmation of what a “great guy” I am. He still uses me even though he knows I am a selfish, self aggrandizing person. I’m grateful for that. I’ve seen some amazing things, things I would never have experienced if God hadn’t used my weaknesses. I’m grateful that he can use me, even in my search for selfish rewards.

I still think about that guy. I wonder where he’s at, is he hungry, does he have shoes…is he still feeding pigeons…

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