Ottawa really only has one decent coffee shop, Jeremiah Joe’s. Great place, wireless internet, pretty good drinks, and wonderful atmosphere for studying, socializing, or checking out the local musical talent on the weekends.
Over the course of the last handful of months, I couldn’t help but notice another regular at JJ’s. Although I’ve never seen him purchase a drink, I began observing the strange bahavior of an obese man, maybe in his early 40s, who was clearly mentally retarded. His routine is simple – enter the shop, find an available chair as close to other patrons as possible, and repeat, parrot-like, “Hi,” until either they acknowledge his existence or just plain ignore him for an extended amount of time. Even if he’s on the opposite end of the shop, if someone enters the front door, he’ll stare at them and persistently repeat his greeting from across the room.
Most people ignore him. Others will offer a brief “hi” back. A few younger people, mainly junior-high girls, actually are very pointed in their response to him: “Don’t sit here! Our friend is sitting in that seat! Go away!” Except when there’s harshness, this visitor will continue saying “hi,” even if he got an earlier response.
Whenever I see this guy, my heart wants to break. He doesn’t know the finer points of interpersonal communication. But I get the distinct impression that he’s lonely. Very lonely. I’ve watched him sit in Jeremiah Joe’s for hours on end, just wanting to get a reciprocated greeting from someone.
I believe the Lord, a few weeks back, put a level of compassion in my heart for our coffee shop greeter. One evening, while I was reading in a corner, he passed by and our eyes met. With genuine interest, I asked him how he was doing. He froze. Perhaps no one had asked him that in a long time. He looked at me with a puzzled look, and said, “Fine. But do you know me?” I explained that I had seen him there before, but that we had never met.
So, I made it a point, whenever we happened to be in that downtown shop together, to look him in the eye and tell him “hi” back. Occassionally I’ll ask him how his day is going.
Well, today was an interesting day at Jeremiah Joe’s. I wanted to try to finish my book on the life of Peter. Then in walked the man, in his usual disheveled clothes and untidy hair. He made his way toward the customer service counter and found the nearest chair. He planted himself there, and, as business started to pick up, so did the incessant output of “hi.”
This family of three – a mom, a dad, and a teenage girl – walked up to the counter to order their drinks. They were not exempt from the barrage of greeting. The mom even responded about four times to this guy, each time expressing a little less patience than before. Once the drinks were made and paid for, the family found an out-of-the-way cranny near the front of the shop. Our unofficial greeter seemed to feel he had found some new friends. He got up and slowly followed them to the narrow corner where they were seated. The tension in the air was palpable. He stood about five feet away from their table, saying, “hi.” He also began saying, “I’m a good boy, I’m a good boy.” I felt so sorry for this man, because he was oblivious to the discomfort this family was feeling. He was just so focused on being with someone, that he didn’t notice how it made them feel. I also felt empathy for the family, too, because of how awkward the scene was.
A couple of times, the greeter walked away, only to return a few moments later. During one of his return trips to the family’s table, I felt compelled to somehow intervene. I had just read a passage in my book about how compassionate Peter and John were to the crippled man near the temple, in the book of Acts. Then, as I was observing the coffee shop scene unfold in front of me, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ teaching about taking care of “the least of these.”
As the greeter passed by me, our eyes met and I asked him how he was doing. “Fine.” I asked him, “Do you like to drink coffee?” He paused for a moment, and he mumbled, then said, “I like chocolate milk.” I then said, “You like saying ‘hi’ to people, don’t you?” “Yeah.” “Well, that’s great. Just be careful not to say it too many times, because it makes people feel really uncomfortable.” As he began walking back toward the family’s table, he looked back at me and said, “Okay.”
I decided I’d try to get to know him a little bit better, so he didn’t just feel like someone being a bother. I went to the front counter and ordered a large chocolate milk for my friend. As I came back to my table, he saw me carrying the chocolate milk, and he left the presence of the family and walked toward me. I told him, “I bought a chocolate milk for you, if you’d like it. It’s right over here.” He came nearer, and I handed it to him. The puzzled look on his face returned. Very sincerely he thanked me for the drink. He stood near my table, removed the lid to his drink, and began guzzling. I felt bad for him as he dribbled on his crumpled, white tee-shirt. I said, “Oh, there are some napkins right over there. You might want to wipe that up a little bit.” He zipped up his coat instead, and continued drinking, savoring the sweet drink. I asked him what he usually did when he wasn’t at Jeremiah Joe’s, and all he said was, “Home.””Oh, so you live near here?” “Yeah. You?” “I live on the south side of town, over the bridge. By the way, what’s your name?” “Ba.” “Ba?” “Yeah, Ba.” He then proceeded to thank me several more times for buying him the chocolate milk, and pronounced that it was good. After a few more sips, he made his way over to the napkins, stood there drinking, then exited the shop without another word and without cleaning up his shirt.
A little while later, the family of three got up to leave. As they passed by, the parents both thanked me for helping take care of the awkward situation, and for the kindness I showed Ba. The dad told me, “You know, most people probably aren’t kind to him at all like that, so thank you.”
I think the reason why it wasn’t hard to take action today in talking with Ba was that I am in some ways a lot like him. I can be naive, simple, and repetitive. And I sometimes let my loneliness dictate my actions. I wish I knew more of Ba’s story – what his life has been like, who he lives with, if he knows about Jesus.
I know that Jesus’ compassion toward a sometimes emotionally and spiritually disheveled guy like me far surpasses the act of buying chocolate milk. I am so thankful for the Lord’s willingness to meet me where I’m at, although sometimes the best I can do is mumble. I’m grateful for His desire to be with me, although my inner self is a mess a lot of times. The kindness, goodness, and greatness of Jesus has given me the desire to love the people around me the best I know how. Thanks, Lord, for the lesson I learned today in getting to know Ba.