At first, I wanted to ignore Joe because I thought he was homeless and wanted money. I was also a little afraid of him because his jeans were filthy and he wore a black patch over his right eye. I wanted to make him invisible.
I owned a garden store in the Pearl District of Portland. On sunny days, beautiful, fragrant plants and furnishings would spill onto the sidewalk carving out a welcoming and friendly nook amid the noise and hustle of the city. Neighbors often stopped here for conversation and for a break before moving on with their day.
One day, Joe stopped by. His life was obviously different from my usual up-scale customers. Joe came into my store but I didn’t feel threatened. There was a sincere, easy way about him. He said he needed to earn $22.65 and wondered if I had work. His polite manner made me want to help him. He volunteered that he needed the money to buy his son a certain book for school.
So began a two-year relationship with Joe. About every two months he came back to the store looking for work, always with a specific amount of money he needed. Although he had addiction and medical problems, he was doing his best to support his wife and children. Sometimes I gave him cash to go out and get both of us some lunch. It was a small test to see if I could trust him. Each time he returned with food and the exact change.
One day I asked him to come in and work for an entire day. There was a lot of cleaning to do and there were repairs to make; Joe was a great handy man. Except for the 10 minutes he took for lunch, he refused to take any breaks. While he worked, he shared part of his life story. His family was poor but he made it through high school. After being drafted into the army, his next stop was Vietnam where he lost an eye. Before being discharged, the army assigned him to inventory body parts to make sure they all got into the proper black bag before being shipped home.
In that moment, I understood his struggles with drug abuse. I wondered how any person could collect body parts and not need to be sedated with drugs? The more time I spent with Joe, the more I liked him. Joe’s life had not been an easy one but he never complained. Joe eventually disappeared. I never knew what happened to him but he left me a present: there are no more invisible Joes.
Joe taught me that acts of kindness knit us together. Opportunities for one-to-one communications can reduce the barriers that social labels create. If I had gone with my first assumptions derived from appearances about drug abuse and homelessness, I never would have know about the struggles and the deep humanity of Joe.