I smelled it long before I saw it. You’ve seen those cartoons where the character catches a whiff of a powerful, pleasant odor and suddenly rises off the ground, borne along by the fumes like a slave in chains. That was me, right before lunchtime a couple of days ago in my clinic.
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter. I’m used to the pungent odor of burned popcorn coming from the break room microwave, but this was different; more like Sunday brunch at the Ritz. It was deep brown, slightly crispy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, seasoned with just the right amount of rosemary, garlic and basil. It was turkey.
My first thought was that the powers that be had gifted us with a surprise lunch for all our hard work, a token of their appreciation at this “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I was disabused of that flicker of holiday hope (really, what was I thinking?) when I realized the aroma wasn’t emanating from the break room, our officially designated eating area, but instead from the other direction, smack-dab in the middle of my clinic.
There wasn’t supposed to be any food in patient care areas–official regulations. This warranted investigation and appropriate action. I don’t have control over a lot of things, but I am in charge of my own hallway and clinic–or so I thought.
Using my amazing powers of olfactory sensory perception, I located the source. The aroma was coming from a small alcove off my hallway which was located directly across from my main exam room, a sub-waiting area where patients bide their time while their eyes dilate.
I rounded the corner and what to my wondering eyes should appear but Homeless Hank, all 6 foot 3 inches of him, slouched comfortably in one chair with his feet propped on another, forming a leggy bridge which stretched almost the width of the room. He was holding a plate full of turkey and picking apart the pieces and scooping them into his mouth as fast as he could, like a runaway steam shovel. The room was quiet save for the sound of him smacking his lips and licking his fingers. Hank normally has a loud, profane conversation going with the voices in his head, but they seemed quiet too. Probably too busy eating. From the looks of the size of that bird on the table next to him, there was plenty to go around.
If you’re a long-time reader, you may recall meeting Hank right before Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, right after a team of determined do-gooders and I had moved a few mountains to get him some much-needed cataract surgery. He had snowflake-white opacities in both eyes, and those, combined with the ear-plugs he used to try to block the voices in his head, made life on the street dangerous for him and those he encountered.
I had seen him several times since then. Recently, I passed him on the sidewalk on my way to get a sandwich. He was arguing with some invisible someone and apparently they were both yelling nasty things at each other. I’ve learned that if you just yell louder and call out his name, he’ll snap back to reality and engage.
“HANK,” I shouted. “HOW YA DOIN’?”
“Huh, wha…oh, I’m a’right.”
“How are you seeing these days?” I asked. I could tell by the way he walked with his head up and stepped confidently and quickly off of curbs that he was seeing better than he was before the surgery when he had crawled slowly along, his eyes fixed on the sidewalk beneath his feet.
“I’m seein’ good,” he replied.
Now here we were, two wandering souls, destined, it seemed, to keep crossing paths. I left him alone with his meal fit for a king and did a little investigation. There had been turkey giveaway to the homeless the evening before and one of our employees had participated. Hank had showed up, and our staffer had told him that he would cook the turkey that night and that if Hank came to the clinic the next day, he could eat it. Hank had told him that was fine, as long as everyone else got some too.
Hank may not be “all there,” but when it comes to offers of free turkey, he’s “all in.” He showed up on time, his hair neatly trimmed, wearing what appeared to be a new coat and shoes (apparently there are many Clarences who are out there earning their wings this time of year). Another staffer let him in the door, and together with the cook searched around for a space for Hank to chow down without getting him or themselves in trouble. They didn’t want to put him in the main waiting area (might make the other patients “uncomfortable”), and they didn’t want to leave him in a room by himself. So they chose my room, out of the way mostly, but still close enough for passersby to keep tabs on him. They told my tech what they were doing, but not me of course. Like they say, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
One thing’s for sure, homeless people will stretch you. I don’t like breaking rules unless there’s a good reason, but I will if I have to. I do it all the time in order to get things done. I wrote the book on “throwing away the book.” I looked around and realized that whoever wrote that rule about no food in patient care areas was nowhere to be seen. They were far, far away, probably somewhere up in Washington, D.C., most likely with plenty of food of their own. I looked outside. It was in the low-50s and was raining to beat the band.
I had done absolutely nothing to make this wonderful scene happen. Very little was required of me; all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and not muck things up. I didn’t want to be forever known as that guy who kicked Homeless Hank back out into the streets–in the rain–before he had a chance to finish his Christmas Miracle Turkey.
I went on about my business seeing patients, and Hank kept on eating. The other patients didn’t seem to mind at all. Anytime anyone walked by and said hi to him and asked if he was enjoying his meal he would tell them that he was, thank you, and would say, “Want sum’?” There was a stack of paper plates and extra forks, and several took him up on his offer.
When it was over, Hank and his new friends had picked that bird clean to the bone. Hank stood and burped, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and stretched. He left quickly and quietly, back out into the cold rain, like a Magi on a mission.
I’ve thought about what happened since, and it seems to me that Baby Jesus was born into this world for a lot of reasons, but making a long list of rules and enforcing them to the letter was not among them. In fact, he was known to break a few, or at least bend them into their proper shape, especially if it meant helping someone like Homeless Hank.
When it comes to rules, the only one above breaking is the Golden One.