Joseph was wandering, a stranger in a foreign land. He wanted nothing more than a refuge for the evening when he came into the public house full of people already for the night. It was nearly Christmas – a night when it wasn’t good to be loose in the cold alone and afraid.
But unlike his namesake, he had no family in tow and was not following a star. Joseph came that night to a bar lit up with neon beer signs to guide him.
We met Joseph first when he offered his seat far in the corner, away from the crowd. Though we refused to displace him he was bent on wandering around the bar, talking with nearly everyone in short, friendly bursts. A man not tall and built with a stocky endurance, his face showed almost no emotion except a drained, defeated look.
Nothing about him stood apart in a bar filled with people spending a night away from family and obligation.
We didn’t speak to him at any length until a smoke break out in the cold brought us away from the light and noise. Stepping through the door he was guarding we exchanged the first get-to-know-you words.
“Y’all have a good evening,” he called.
“Oh, we’re not leaving,” “We’re just indulging in the habit.”
“Oh, I thought you were on your way out.”
“No, we’re sticking around.” “How are you this evening?”
The simple greeting almost never has a deep response, but this time it started with a pause that waited for the downbeat. When it came around, Joseph’s deeply set face opened up a small crack.
“I’m not good, not good at all.”
“What’s wrong, honey?” Jeannie jumped in before I could.
“I’m away from my family. Up here from Chicago, that’s where my family is. My wife and I aren’t … we’re not getting along.”
A longer pause ran after the downbeat. “It hurts,” he continued, “It hurts.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, honey. What brought you here?”
“I’m staying with my cousins. I just had to get away. I don’t want to split up.”
“You come here to find work?” I wondered how he got to St Paul.
“No, I just had to get away. We weren’t getting along. It hurts so bad.”
“But you have a place to stay?”
Yeah, I’m OK. I just don’t want to be away from my family.”
A deep sigh ended the sentence – a long soliloquy without words that eloquently described his burden. But it still demanded many more words to spill forward into the cold night.
“I’m so sorry, honey. What happened between you?”
”I don’t know, my wife and I just weren’t getting along. It’s leaving my kids that really hurts.”
“How old are they?”
“Sixteen, nine, and five. I do everything for them. They are my life. Being away from them is what really hurts.”
“Yeah, with Christmas coming up this has to be tough.”
“It’s my first Christmas away from them. I’m the one who puts up the tree, I’m the one who makes sure they have presents. But I’m not there for them now. It just hurts.”
Tears pooled around his eyes and slowly leaked down his face. Joseph was motionless, not responding at all as his pain leaked out. Jeannie stepped up to wipe them away while Joseph simply stood there unable to respond. Once they left his body those tears left what was left of his world – only what he carried inside him.
“Honey, it’s OK, you can cry. Men can cry, isn’t that right?”
“Yes, of course,” I added. “Strong men express themselves. You’re obviously strong to hold it together like this.”
“It’s just that everything I ever did was for my kids. I love them. But I had to get away for myself. I’m just lost.”
“That makes sense,” I told him. “There’s so much in your head. I went through this, too, but even though my marriage failed I was always there for my kids.”
”I’m not there right now. I’m lost. I had to go away, you understand?”
”Yes, honey, I do.”
Another short pause waited for the downbeat.
“All my life I’ve done everything for them. I never thought about myself before. I love my kids, they are my life. But now I have to think about me, I have to get myself together. I’m lost.”
“I understand. Everything I ever did was for my kids first. I hardly know how to take care of myself without them around.”
“At night I sleep on the couch at my cousins and I think about them. I tell myself, ‘this is not my world, this is not my place.’ But I have to find myself. I’m so lost.”
“You’re on a journey, you’ll find yourself. You are obviously very strong.”
That felt stupid as it came in response. Joseph’s rich voice was finding itself. His body was lost but his words came from deep inside, erupting slowly out with a fire that seemed to surprise even him. I was reduced to prompting him, calling for more words that would nurture and inspire us both.
“People tell me I shouldn’t have a joint checking account, that I need to have something for my own, that it’s time to start over. They say I’m a fool, that I should move on. But I can’t do that. I put money in there for them, I have to take care of them. That’s my responsibility.”
“Yeah, you have to do what you think is right.”
“It’s the only thing I can do. Taking responsibility as a man is all I know. I never thought about myself. That’s why I’m lost.”
“Then you do that. Don’t worry about what people say. You’re not a fool, you’re a man.”
“That’s what I feel. As a black man that’s what I have to do. You know we’re not all selfish.”
I cried a little as the poison of racial profiles seeped into this. But it helped me feel his pain a little more sharply.
“This isn’t a black or white thing,” I offered. “I’ve been where you are. Just keep doing what you know is right.”
”It’s all for my kids, they’re all that I care about.”
The words were slowing down for him as he stood there in the cold. He hardly moved or showed any expression as it all came out. Jeannie asked if she could hug him and he said OK. For the first time Joseph’s body caught up with the language that was spilling out and he loosened. I game him a one-armed man-hug as well.
“I know it’ll work out,” Joseph said carefully. “I’m so glad I talked to you. You’ve helped me to feel better about it.”
“Whatever we can do to help you. You need to talk.”
”I just have to take care of myself. I have to learn how to do that. But I do miss my kids so much.”
”Bad time of year for this, for sure.”
”Yeah. I never wanted this to happen. But I will get through it.”
We stayed for a while outside and fell into smaller talk. Wandering back into the warmth and light of the bar we slowly drifted apart. There were sports on the TV and other friendly people Joseph had been talking to. But in a short while he came back with his phone out, fidgeting intently.
“Y’all are so nice, I can’t thank you enough. You really helped. Here, let me take a pic of me with my new friends.”
“Sure let’s go in for group hug!” Jeannie is much more of a hugger than I am.
Three faces lit up as if nothing was wrong and were captured in vivid colors. A little idle chat later and it was time for us to go back out into the cold – in our case, to our home not far away.
Joseph would later wander down an unfamiliar street looking for a bright star to guide him. But a guy like him carries that glory deep down inside – down far enough that it’s not always able to radiate out and show him the way. If nothing else came from that night I hope that star shown brightly – not down on him like Joseph’s namesake who took care of his family on a cold night long ago, but from deep inside.
This Joseph, this man from Chicago lost in a strange land, carries his glory with him. He only has to find the way to let it out.
That was a real tear jerker, but it happens all too often.
A wonderful but very sad story for Christmas. I hope it works out well for Joseph.