I have worked here at Gateway Center for about nine months now. Not much of a span of time to be working somewhere, I know. Stories are accumulated, one way or another, wherever it is that you make your bacon to bring home at the end of the week. Yet Gateway Center presents a whole new world of stories. The hard times and struggles definitely manifest themselves often, but there’s also hilarity; silly moments with volunteers and co-workers and clients too. We laugh and we cry like the tides coming in and out of the harbor. It’s just the way of life here on Pryor Street. Sometimes there are stories that take a minute or a month or more to digest, to take root, and to grow back out in the form of words articulated with some level of coherence.
It was the week before Christmas and the weatherman was calling for far chillier nights than we had experienced in months. It was later in the afternoon and I was working at my old desk on something to do with weekend scheduling or some other spreadsheet oriented deal, the kinds of tasks that somebody has to do, so it might as well be me. Our receptionist calls me out to the front to meet a gentleman who we will call Harry. Harry was elderly, with a white beard and a thin frame. He had a walker, and he was obviously tired, having walked a good ways that day. Harry had a wide and natural smile. We shook hands and he pulled out this letter from an organization down the road called “Hosea Feed the Hungry”. This is the non-profit that was started by famed Atlanta civil rights leader Hosea Williams. If you’re from around here then you would know them for their massive holiday meals they serve to the homeless on days like Thanksgiving and Christmas. They do a lot more too, providing services all year long, which is why I was meeting Harry here in the closing days of Advent.
Harry was so kind, so cool. He would appreciate anything we could do, but he knew we were going to be full. We were full that morning when I sent out the daily vacancy report and any openings that might have come were likely to have evaporated by this late stage in the day. We were filled up to the brim, like always. But I told Harry I would check, and so I went back to my desk and called upstairs, and you wouldn’t believe it but they were going to have a bed open up right there in that moment, a little miracle like on 34th Street. I walked out to the lobby, grinning from ear to ear, ready to give him the news. But I found him engaged with a case manager named Ebony. They were just chatting and smiling and catching up like there were some kind of old buddies. I interrupted as business-professionally as I could to deliver the happy news that there was a space for Harry and started to give directions to the elevator to the second floor and over and around the corner to the proper office so he could find his room.
Ebony said, “That’s okay, Jason. I’ll show Mr. Harry were to go. We’ve known each other a long time.” I shook his hand and he asked my name, saying how much he appreciated what I had done. I told him it was nothing and it was just my job and I smiled, turning back to the hallway and towards my desk.
I was just about halfway back when I hear Ebony call from the door, “Jason! Hold on. I want to tell you something.”
I walk back, “What’s up?”
“Do you see this medal around Mr. Harry’s neck?” Hanging from the gentleman’s necklace was a bronze medallion with a relief of Martin Luther King Jr.’s face and the words “I have a dream” inscribed around the edge.
Ebony continued, “Mr. Harry here marched in the civil rights movement back in the 1960’s. Hosea gave these medals out to only about 10 of his top aides, Mr. Harry being one of them. I just wanted you to know who this was the next time you see him.”
Ebony wanted me to know that who we were standing with that day was a hero.
How many heroes do I walk past every day on the south end of Peachtree Street? How many men and women have sacrificed so much for their communities and families and no one knows their names or what they’ve done to change the world in some way? Unless you asked everyone their story, which wouldn’t be a bad idea at all, then we’d never know. Instead we often continue to assign stories to the people we pass. That guy is an alcoholic and that woman over there is a drug addict. They’re welfare queens and takers and thieves. Maybe it’s not pure disdain, maybe we dress it up with pity in our voices: “Somebody really ought to help these people.” Words like these.
But the truth I learned that day, if I haven’t had this lesson a million other ways in my time working at Gateway, is this: every person has a story. Every person is indwelt with great dignity, some folks have just forgotten. Some people seem on the outside weaker than anything I have ever seen but are really stronger than cliffs standing sentinel along the seaside.
Harry, with his big white beard and bigger smile, was that kind of strong. He once walked in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and he has walked the same streets as a man without a home with his walker guiding him. I haven’t seen him since that day, but I believe he’s doing okay. People like that just know how to live.