I had no idea that God was waiting for me at the laundromat. That was for the best. If I had known God was going to be there, I would’ve gone to the other side of town.
I was carrying a basket of our family’s essential clothes. Our washer broke, and the repair guy didn’t work on Saturdays.
I was dumping the basket in the washer when I saw a woman dressed too nicely for a laundromat talking with a homeless guy over by the dryers. He was sitting on top of a table that was also secured to the wall in a ripped, brown flannel shirt. He had a faded, bulging, black garbage bag next to him, with a book and a bottle peeking out the top of the bag.
She was carefully folding clothes coming out of the dryer.
I watched to make sure that the homeless guy wasn’t harassing her or that she wasn’t lecturing him.
I’m not sure why it mattered. I wasn’t the kind of person who would do anything about it anyway.
But, they seemed to be getting along fine.
I dumped the detergent and fabric softener I had brought with me into the washer, dropped the lid closed, and plugged in an unholy amount of quarters.
Greedy bastards. I thought to myself.
I sat down and was about to purge my conscious thoughts with a little social media scrolling when I sensed him.
I should say I smelt him.
The stench was overwhelming. I wanted to vomit. It was a combination of the worst body odor you can imagine and something that gets left in the back of the refrigerator for so long that you can no longer make out what it is a leftover of — it has become a giant mold colony.
I looked up, and the homeless guy was standing there, beaming at me.
It was unnerving at first. But, the longer I looked at his face, the more peaceful I felt.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Yes. But will you?” He said.
“Huh? I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Do you need anything? I think I have some cash I can give you.”
“You have three dollars and seventy-five cents on your person and another sixty-three cents in your minivan if you count the pennies under the backseat.”
I looked around. The lady had left. It was just the babbling homeless guy and me.
I pulled out my wallet and took out three crumpled one-dollar bills. I then reached into my pocket and found three quarters. I offered them to the man.
He smiled and took the bills.
“Thank you. Keep the change.” He turned and started to walk towards the door.
My heart was pounding. I was sweating. I somehow knew that this is one of the crossroads in life that you read about in magazines.
“Uh-sir. Um. Excuse me. But how did you know how much money I had on me?”
He turned. He was still smiling. His teeth were yellow, almost brown. One of his front teeth looked like it would fall out if he sucked too hard on a straw or bit down too hard on a burger.
“Is that what you want to ask me?”
I shook my head.
“No. I want to know who you are.”
He walked back over to me and set his trash bag down next to me.
“Oh,” I said.
I’ve told this story a thousand times. And this is the part that always tells me what kind of person I’m talking too. The skeptics explode with a thousand questions. The open-hearted just keep listening.
“Will you serve me?” He asked.
“Yes. But will you answer a few questions?”
“I will answer the questions that will help you, and I will not answer the questions that will impede your progress.”
“Okay. So, is this what you always look like?”
He laughed. It wasn’t a cruel laugh. It was like the way you imagine Santa would laugh. He wasn’t making fun of my ignorance. He was reveling in my innocence.
“I rarely look the same way twice. If we ever meet again, you won’t know me from my appearance. You will only know me because you have come to know me.”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“I want you to start volunteering down at the shelter. The one on Commercial Street. Do you know it?”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Yes. But start at the shelter for now.”
“Should I tell others about meeting you?”
“I will let you use your judgment. I’m not calling you to preach. I’m asking you to serve at the shelter.” He said.
I nodded again.
“Thank you,” I said.
He winked at me, picked up his garbage bag, and strolled out of the laundromat.
Nobody else came in while I finished the laundry. I kept replaying the scene in my mind.
I wondered if I was having an episode of some kind. But, I decided that if I was wondering if I was crazy, chances were that I was sane.
I went home and did not tell my wife about meeting God.
I started volunteering at the shelter.
I never knew there were so many homeless people in my town. My job was to help people checking in for the night understand the rules. I soon found myself hanging out even after my shift was over. Mostly, I just listened to the stories.
My wife kept asking me why I was spending so much time down at the shelter when I had a family to take care of.
She was right. We had two children. I worked hard to balance time with the kids, my job, and my time at the shelter. But, it was a constant juggling act.
It was during this time that I started to pray. I’d never really prayed before. But it felt like talking to a wise friend. I just imagined talking to God like I was talking to him in the laundromat.
After about a year of working at the shelter, I was getting ready to leave one evening when a woman pushing a shopping cart with three cats in it yelled at me from across the street. She motioned for me to come over to her.
I crossed the street, and she grabbed my arm. She had penetrating brown, almost black eyes.
“He wants you to give up your worldly possessions.” She said.
“He wants you to give up your worldly possessions.”
“Okay. Thank you. When will I see him again?”
“He wants you to give up your worldly possessions. It’s what’s holding you back.”
Then she let go and strolled off down the street.
I went home and explained everything to my wife. She did not take it well.
The next morning, we were in the waiting room of a psychiatrist.
The room was packed. But, my attention was drawn to a Hispanic woman in a wheelchair. She appeared to be missing her legs from the knees down. But that wasn’t why I kept looking at her.
It was her face. There was something about her face. It was so content and joyful.
My name was called, and I went to see the psychiatrist while my wife waited for me.
The psychiatrist was polite, but not friendly. My encounter with God didn’t faze her. She wrote me a prescription and told me to set up counseling sessions three times a week.
Before I knew it, I was back in the waiting room.
I explained to my wife what had happened. She looked relieved.
“I thought they were going to institutionalize you. Let’s go get your prescription filled.” She said.
She got up to leave, but I hesitated.
“You are going to take the medication, aren’t you?”
“I-I don’t know.”
She bit her lip the way she did when she was trying not to kill someone.
“Let me have an hour to think about it. Let me just walk around the block for an hour, and we can meet for lunch.” I said.
“Fine. But, let me just make one thing clear. You take those drugs, or you leave our home.”
Then she marched out of the office.
The Hispanic woman in the wheelchair was still sitting in the waiting room. I went over and sat down next to her.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“Why are you asking me?”
“Because you’re God.”
She grinned, and I felt like she was putting a warm blanket over my soul.
“You haven’t done what I asked.”
I felt a pang of guilt.
“I will. But, should I take these drugs?” I waved my prescription.
“I won’t disappear if you do.” She said.
“I know. Thank you.”
I got up and left to walk around the block. I didn’t notice it right away — but the warm feeling I had sitting next to the woman in the wheelchair was gradually faded.
I moved out of the house that evening.
My wife got a restraining order against me the next day.
The next week I was fired from my job on account of the restraining order.
It was easier giving away my possessions since I now only owned a few things. I donated my books, my clothes, even the clothes I was wearing to the shelter. I traded my thick coat and warm shirts to a man in his seventies who was about my size. I took his thread-worn pants and shirt. The only thing I kept was the three quarters that I had in my pocket that day in the laundromat when I first met God.
Weeks went by, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it meant to be hungry. I understood cold in a way I never had before. I also got to experience how cruel my fellow humans could be.
I missed my wife and kids.
At first, I looked for God everywhere. But, I quit doing that after a month. God and her messengers were nowhere to be seen.
After six months, I began to wonder if I really was crazy. Maybe I had imagined God. Maybe I should’ve taken the medication.
After a year and a half, I decided I was crazy.
Then one afternoon, I saw the woman from the laundromat again. It was the well-dressed one who was chatting with God before my life got turned upside down. She was strolling down the street, heading towards the shelter.
I had to know if she had seen God too, or if she was talking to a homeless guy that day.
I’d been sitting against the side of a building in the alley across from the shelter. It was below freezing, and I was hiding from the wind. I kept my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. My fingers were fondling the edges of my three divine quarters.
I stood up and heard those three quarters jingling and jangling in my pocket.
“Excuse me,” I said, trying to catch her attention.
She smiled, waved, and kept walking.
I ran towards her. The quarters were jangling again. They always did that when I tried to move quickly. I started to cough and slowed down to a brisk walk.
I passed by a new guy I had met at the shelter last night. He was shivering.
“Hey man, you don’t happen to have any change, do ya? I’m just three quarters short of a cup of coffee. I could really use a hot cup — it’s been forever.”
“Sorry. Not today.” I said as I sped up to chase the woman. The coins clattered again, and I stopped.
I looked back at the man I had just passed.
Greedy bastard. I thought to myself.
You really are a greedy bastard.
I turned around and gave the man my last seventy-five cents. I looked over my shoulder, but the woman had vanished.
“Thanks, guy. You’re a lifesaver.” The man said.
I smiled. “Sure thing. You’d better hurry; the shelter’s going to open soon.”
As he left, I noticed that I wasn’t cold anymore.
It was like when God put that warm blanket over my soul again, but this time the feeling didn’t fade.
I smiled. It was the happiest I’d ever felt. I knew nothing would ever bring me discouragement ever again.
I walked into an alley intending to try praying again. I had stopped praying sometime in the past year.
As I got deeper into the alley, I saw the old homeless man from the laundromat again. He beamed at me, and this time, I beamed back.
“You may be slow, but you get there eventually, don’t you?”
He laughed the same joyful laugh.
“I have another task for you. I need you to deliver a message to someone struggling with their faith can you do that?”
I nodded and waited for further instructions.