December is "Best of" Month - Introduction
Adventures in Couch Surfing
One morning not so long ago, I was surprised by a hump of sleeping Indianians as I was making my scratching, sleepy-eyed and bathrobed way to the kitchen. In the two months we’d been co-habitating, it felt as if the entire Indiana tribe was slowly pilgrimaging after my then roommate, fresh off the bus herself, and that Ellis Island had relocated to our Queens living room. I’m exaggerating of course. She was just generous with our couches. This particular bunch had stayed a night longer than expected. And discovering their bodies still and unexpectedly entrenched in our living room - their alcohol-fueled, music-festival-adventures of the night before evaporating with each gentle snore - had caught my dream-addled personage off-guard. As if I had farted in privacy only to discover afterwards that I hadn’t been alone after all. I hadn’t actually minded though. In fact, being surprised by sleeping strangers in my house reminded me of my own youth, a time when I had frequently been generous with other couches. No really. Like the time I let a homeless person stay with me.
One summer, back in Portland, Oregon, this guy caught my attention. He always wore a parka and had been hanging downtown at a square usually inhabited by skate-punk, street-kid runaways. I noticed him because he was cute, and I was curious why he was living on the streets when he didn’t look like he was a punk-runaway himself. So I went up to him one day and asked what his deal was. John told me that he had found God/Jesus/what-have-you, and had given up his material life to roam the planet spreading the gospel as Jesus had. Though only 18, I was awed by the magnitude of his sacrifice. Here was a man who had given up everything even though his reward might amount to nothing more than Quixote’s windmill. My curiosity bloomed. What kind of person would do this? What had his experiences been so far? So I did what any hot-blooded teenager would do. I invited him to spend the night at my place.
At the time, I told myself that I was being altruistic, that I couldn't fathom anyone wanting to sleep on the hard sidewalks more than he'd have to, and that, with my roommate out of town, there was plenty of room in our top floor, two-bedroom for an errant messenger of God. And though I was truly curious about, and kind of admiring of, his life choice, I would be lying if I don’t also admit that I had hoped for a little sumpin-sumpin to add to my barely notched belt. Stop reading now, however, if you’re looking for a gruesome or lascivious end. John accepted my invitation on the condition that I allow him to labor in exchange for the shelter. So he cooked dinner, we talked, and I got to know him a bit. He wasn't a freak, not like New York City soapbox stumpers anyway. And his life-choice had been personal, not the result of cult indoctrination or orders from any specific religion. But mostly, he was humble. It's amazing how a little humility will egg-on a conversation about God. Patient? That’s the word I’m looking for. I was agnostic back then, but my difficult questions didn’t frighten him or put him on the defensive. John was extremely patient with me, in the way, I suppose, most girls need their first sexual partner to be. Except not only was there no sex that night, there wasn’t even any flirting. I do remember the conversation being light and fun though. And compassionate. We didn’t own any couches (but we did have plush carpeting, thank you very much). And, after dinner, John fell asleep on the floor of the living room. When I woke the next morning, he was already gone. He came by a few days later, to drop off a thank-you gift before he left Portland for good. It was a Salvation Army Bible onto which he’d stitched a leather cover. Inside, he’d marked his favorite passages and inscribed it, "To Belle, from Jesus (by your friend John)" with a quote from Philippians. That was the last time I saw him.
Now isn't that the way it's supposed to be? Shouldn't we be able to open our homes to those less fortunate without fear of rape or burglary or lice? How many Christians, much less ordinary non-religious people, do you think open their homes this way? I had no ulterior motive for my kindness: he offered dinner, I didn't require it; I was not looking to convert him to agnosticism; and any hope for sex was just that, hope, and not my ultimate motivation. But neither had John any ulterior motives. Though I did not follow Jesus, he did not need, nor did he try, to convert me. He was just grateful for the shelter. For life and breath. And for the opportunity to give. And I was just curious. And fearless. I have never invited a homeless person to sleep on my couch in New York, though it crosses my mind frequently, every time I see one of those college-aged kids sitting with the cardboard signs, the ones who look like they took a right in Albuquerque when they shoulda taken a left. But I have not felt that kind of fearlessness in a long time. I miss it. What changed, the world around me, or me?
I keep John’s Bible by my bed. Every time it catches my eye, I wonder what he’s doing now. Is he still on his Jesus kick or did something cynical boomerang him back into secular life? Did he ever meet the woman capable of knocking him off his celibacy? Or did he finally glide into a secluded monastery and continues his good works to this day? But I haven’t read it yet. I know that one day I will, but for the same reasons that I will also one day read Moby Dick, War and Peace and other great works of literature - because they are the greatest stories ever told. It’s interesting that, once upon a time, you were considered educated if you had read and could quote from the Bible. Nowadays, Bob Jones University is unaccredited. Maybe both have happened: I've changed, and so has the world around me. So John, if you’re still out there, I now own a couch that pulls out into a bed. You know, in case you still need a couch to surf.
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