An act of love in the Christmas brisket under a highway overpass
Max has moved. He used to fly his cardboard sign — “Please help homeless”— on an exit ramp where there was a stoplight. Now he is at a busy intersection with traffic flowing two ways, a bit riskier, but probably a more profitable location.
I’ve known Max for many years. Our focus has always been on the basics of living a hard homeless life and his body that often fails him. His teeth are mostly gone. His left leg has an old wound that often bursts open and bleeds. Recently, his right hand was swollen to three times its size from a spider bite.
Being homeless wracks one’s body and long-term health. No wonder. Lack of nutritious food on a regular basis, limited medical support, exposure to dangerous weather, uncertainty about where to sleep, and safety in general take their toll. I notice this over the years of buying pants for Max and see the drift in sizes from 40 to 32.
Jesus in his ministry was homeless also and dependent upon others for food, drink and sometimes a resting place. He was the son of God, but also a man who often was tired, hungry, thirsty, dirty and frustrated with those who horded their monies and ignored the poor.
He wanted to teach those who wished to follow him. “And there came a scribe, and said unto him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matthew 8:19
As long-time friends, Max and I can read each other’s mind without words. On the late afternoon of Dec. 23 last year, I travel the close by route from my house to his new camp. I used to be able to drive, then walk the short distance to his old place. It was under an overpass as well, but flat and accessible. It was easy to carry supplies and meet Max and others in this spot.
With the efforts to clean-up homeless camps, this location has been cleaned out and Marx has had to find another place to call home. Although it is under an overpass, I cannot visit him. The incline to the camp is very steep and not navigable for an old lady. We don’t discuss this new site, still he understands the challenge for me and the necessity of finding another meeting place.
At the light behind two cars, I catch his eye and pretend to eat something. He nods. I head to In-N-Out Burger and get his order I know by heart — double burger and a Coke.
Fifteen minutes later, Max sees my car and we met in the service station nearby. I hand him his lunch and say, “Do you need anything?” He answers, “No, I’m good. I plan to wake up at 11:00 on Christmas Eve and put on a brisket for my friends.”
This shocks me. Although Jesus fed friends and strangers, too, Max is so casual about his plans for Christmas dinner. I can’t stop wondering, how does one prepare a brisket under a low overpass where you live? This is his Christmas business, his gift to others, so I don’t press for details.
I cannot let go of the image; however, and want to help without intruding or sticking my two cents into his plans. Does he want some napkins? No, too fussy. Does he need plastic knives and folks from my truck? No, probably not a good idea; the diners all have knives anyway.
So I settle on the addition of hot sauce. I know this is a favorite of street folks, some rolls, a few easy-tab-open cans of Charro beans, and I can’t help myself, a small stack of paper plates.
Max isn’t offended by my contributions and puts the grocery bags in his backpack. On Christmas Eve deep into the night, I wake and imagine Max tending the brisket in his dark dank spot liken to a stable where it all began — love.
“Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her book, "You Are My Brother," is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.