Musings in Ordinary Time: ‘Everyone shares a common dignity’
(POSTED: 12/10/12) It was a golden fall afternoon. I sat near the Water Tower, sipping coffee and watching Chicago go by, enjoying an hour of not talking to people. My reverie ended when a bald man in a dirty windbreaker came up to me with his hand stuck out, implying I should shake it. “My name is Janko,” he proclaimed. “I am half-Greek, half-Serbian.”
Janko plopped down beside me without waiting for an invitation. He said he was a composer and always making music in his head. He demonstrated with a soggy cigarette, humming as he stabbed notes in the air. During our conversation, he would relight the cigarette several times because it constantly blew out in the wind.
Janko claimed to have played all over Europe, making money and moving to Chicago. “I used to live right there on Chestnut.” My eyebrows arched almost completely off my face. “Right there on Chestnut” put him over by the John Hancock. Janko said he fought with his landlord over the rent, got evicted, and then everything in his life went downhill. He went off on a long digression, a la Holden Caulfield, about how society was full of phonies. I agreed with most of it.
Although homeless, Janko hoped to make a musical comeback by doing something “new”: combining rock-and-roll with an orchestra. It would be a kind of, well, how do you say… fusion, I suggested? “Yes, yes, fusion.” I knew the Moody Blues had beaten him to it more than 40 years ago, but I politely refrained from saying so.
Janko needed groceries. It was a Thursday. Could I please come back to this same spot on Saturday with $50 or maybe $100? I suppressed chuckling at his chutzpah and shook my head. Janko’s face fell. “Not even $5 for Pepsi-Cola?” He went away with two bucks toward a pack of cigarettes. I hated to see the same one keep going out. Working in the city, I’m used to penny-ante hustling. I rarely fork anything over, taking my cue from Jesuits who work with the homeless and have warned me that most of the money ends up in the tills of liquor stores. (I’m a stereotypical Catholic liberal. I feel better about my choices when Jesuits approve of them.)
But Janko, for whatever reason, left a mark. And when I think about him, I also think about a passage I recently read, one that Dorothy Day wrote decades ago about guests at her Catholic Worker house: “There are several families with us, destitute families, destitute to an unbelievable extent, and there, too, is nothing to do but to love. What I mean is that there is no chance of rehabilitation, no chance, so far as we see, of changing them; certainly no chance of adjusting them to this abominable world about them—and who wants them adjusted, anyway?”
Day, who was recently recommended for sainthood by the U.S. bishops, hints at a special love for people who cannot and will not ever be “rehabilitated.” Everyone shares a common dignity, but I’m sensing more here. Those who will not “adjust to this abominable world” are those who most clearly reveal that world to us: a swarming beehive of exploitation and exclusion cloaked in pious rectitude. And we who are “adjusted” need to receive that uncomfortable revelation. I feel convicted by Dorothy Day.
What I did with Janko, patiently listening to his elaborate yarn and reading between the lines as my coffee grew cold, is an event that happens too rarely in my life. And if I have come to believe anything, I believe that Christianity and indeed salvation depend on how attentive we are to the inconvenient people who impose themselves, and their inconvenient truths, upon us.
Justin Sengstock is a contributor to the books Hungering and Thirsting For Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics and An Irrepressible Hope: Notes from Chicago Catholics, both published by ACTA in fall 2012. He writes about church and society at http://ivstinvs.wordpress.com and cross-posts much of his content at Young Adult Catholics. Justin works at Call To Action, has a theology degree from Loyola University Chicago, and lives in the south suburbs.