Note: A friend of a friend of a friend wrote this post on Facebook and it made its way to me. I reached out to the author, Dr. Timothy Huffman, and he graciously agreed to allow me to share it as a guest post here. Just so there’s no confusion: This is neither my experience nor my words; they’re Dr. Huffman’s. And they wrecked me in all the best ways.
estimated read time: 12 minutes
It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m driving on Thurman Ave, on my way home from FedEx making copies. As I drive north, the traffic is sorta strange. Cars pulled off at weird angles or creeping very slowly. As I drive on, I see why.
There is a man standing naked in the middle of the street.
He is tall, maybe 6’4”, though he is cringing in a way that makes it hard to see what his full height is. And he isn’t completely naked. A few shirts and perhaps a jacket lay in a crumpled heap about 50 feet away. His shoes are still on, and his pants and boxers are around his ankles.
As I sit in my car at the stop sign, my brain struggles to figure out what is happening. What am I supposed to do? The man seems to be yelling, though not to anyone in particular. A car drives past him slowly, driver gawking. That doesn’t seem like what I’m supposed to do. Thankfully, my home is a left turn, so I don’t have to drive past him. I look left. I could just go home. I consider it, given that I have no idea what I would do if I tried to help.
I drive forward and park at the curb, about 40 feet away from him.
As I watch, I consider calling 911. As I have that thought, I notice a man walking a massive dog with a sweet aviator hat (the man, not the dog) on the phone about 75 feet away from the naked man. He must be calling 911.
I get out of the car. It’s cold out, though not as cold as yesterday. *Not the worst day of winter to be in the street naked,* I think. The man turns to look at me, eyes wild, and says some things I can’t understand. I wonder if I should be afraid. *Nah, I can tell he isn’t armed,* I think to myself sardonically. Also, I don’t think he can charge me with his pants around his ankles. I think I’m safe. Time for words.
“Hello, sir? Can I help you with anything?” I feel stupid saying it, but nothing better comes to mind, so I go with it.
“I’m looking for GOD and the MAN and…” I don’t understand anything else. Maybe he is muttering nonsense. Maybe he isn’t talking loud enough for the 30 feet between us. Now I have even less idea what to say. He keeps talking, sometimes at me, sometimes not. I stand there, car running, door open, just looking. For some strange reason, I’m thrown off by the hair on his butt. He is pretty hairless on the rest of his body, but his butt has curly little hairs.
“SO?!?” he yells at me. I realize I’m staring.
Now the naked man notices the caller with the dog, and starts moving sidelong away from him, past me. I have failed to engage him. He continues to talk aloud. Maybe I hear him say something about “trying to kill me.” He kicks off his shoes and pants and continues down the street in his socks, which are quickly blackened by the icy sludge melting in the street. In his hands I see a clutched lighter. The clearest thing I have thought since this began: *A lighter and a pair of socks.*
I stand next to my car. I consider walking after the naked man, but since he seems to be moving away from us intentionally, I consider that a bad idea. Maybe I should go home. A woman drives past me in her car, pulling over slightly with her window down.
“He is not ok,” she says to me in an intense voice.
“I know, we’ve called 911.”
*At least I hope we have. He could hurt himself.* The dog walker comes up to me. Let’s make sure I just told that woman the truth.
“You call?” I ask him.
“911,” he responds.
“Well, at least we know he isn’t armed,” I say, making my dry joke aloud.
“I don’t think that will make much difference,” the man responds.
I look at his face. I don’t know what he means. Does he mean, ‘He’s crazy, he could hurt someone even if he doesn’t have a weapon.’ He could also mean—my blood runs cold as I think of it—‘It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t have a weapon, he’s black, the cops might kill him anyway.’
Suddenly my mind is teeming. Hands up, don’t shoot. Michael Brown’s body on the concrete. Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, beat to death by the police officers. This man is in danger.
I turn back to see where the naked man has gone. He’s made it about a block. I can’t see him, but I can see the traffic behaving oddly, so I can guess his whereabouts. I consider running after him. *Bad idea. He’ll run.* I get back in my car. *How do I keep the police from killing a raving naked black man?* I have no idea. Calm him down, maybe?
I flip my car around. Half a block away, I’m stuck in a line of traffic. Two young walkers point and laugh. As my car idles forward, the two cars in front of me moving very slowly, I struggle with what I’m going to do.
*I’m a communicator. I can talk this guy down.*
*But he’s talking crazy. How do I talk to someone who is talking crazy?*
And then I remember an experience from years ago, when a friend of mine had a stress induced seizure-related breakdown in class. She was talking incoherently, quickly, over and over. When people had tried to talk to her, she wouldn’t respond. So I had awkwardly sat with her as she talked, just listening. After about three minutes, I noticed that she had more or less started back over again on a previous topic, so as she muttered something, I muttered what she had said last time. I had done my best to keep my mutterings the same stream of consciousness from the cycle before. We went back and forth in this way for some time, mutually if only with vague coherence, articulating her thoughts and worries. Eventually, I asked her if she knew that she was in class. She had said yes. I asked her if she knew if she was having a break down. She had said yes. At that point, we talked freely about who we should call in her family and what we should do.
The experience left a profound effect on me, namely, an abiding belief that “crazy” is a matter of context, and that if you listen and participate in people’s linguistic worlds, you can have more conversations than you think you can have.
Armed with this conviction, though still an empty one, I caught up with the naked man and parked in front of a fire hydrant. The experience with the girl in school had been with a friend, this man was a stranger. How was I supposed to “meet him where he was at?” What did I know about him? Nothing. But this is St Louis. Black men have been killed in my neighborhood for not much more than this. And I don’t have a good feeling about how he is going to respond to the police.
But I know nothing. Well, almost nothing. He had mentioned God…
I got out of the car. I don’t feel much like a hero; I feel like I’m chasing this man down. He doesn’t want to talk to me. As I walk forward, he points at me and crouches with his other hand over his mouth. His white socks are thoroughly sodden at this point.
“Your FACE!” He points to where he saw me last. “You are trying to KILL ME!” he yells. “You’re coming AFTER ME!”
I stop in the street. *I’m not trying to kill you,* I think.
“I’m not trying to kill you,” I say, suspecting it isn’t the right thing to say.
“YES, YOU ARE! YOU’RE COMING AFTER ME!”
What do I say now? I don’t even disagree with him, exactly. *No, I’m not trying to kill you, but I’m worried someone might.* I feel the painful politics I cannot unembody. His black body is more at risk than my white body. Nothing I can say can ever make that untrue. And while I want nothing more than his health and wellbeing, how could he ever know that. *I was glad when I saw someone calling 911, so I am part of the system that may very well be on its way to come and kill you.*
That line of logic has no productive end. Convincing him of my motive isn’t the way through this.
“I don’t want to kill you, but I understand that I can’t convince you of that. You don’t know me,” I say.
“No, I DON’T,” he says, with emphasis. We have to speak loudly to each other, as we are about 30 feet away from each other again.
“Can I ask you a question,” I say, not fully knowing what I’m going to say next.
“I can answer your question,” he says resolutely, almost defiantly.
I stand there. Same page. Meet him where he is. Something about God.
“What’s your question?!?!” he yells. I realize I’m just standing there. “Ask it!”
I start slowly, piecing it together as I go.
“You said you were looking for God… I don’t know if I can help you find God… but, would you like to pray with me?”
His eyes are still wild, but he pushes his head forward to look at me more intently.
“Do I want to pray with you?” he repeats.
“Yes. Do you want to pray with me?” I say, with more confidence.
We just stare at each other. And his posture is suddenly different. His shoulders go back. His face goes soft.
“Yes. I’d like that,” he responds. “Pray with me.”
“Do you want me to stay here?” I ask, feeling weird about the conversation we are having at 30 feet, which requires all our interactions to be yelled.
“Yes. Stay there,” he says, “but go ahead, pray.”
Well crap. In my life, I have had many a prayerful experience. This is not one. The thought of it feels awkward. Nothing particularly comes to mind. But this is the only idea I have, so it’s by definition also the best one (and of course, also the worst).
“Father God,” I say, loudly, so he can hear me, pausing for a moment to try to come up with something.
“Father God,” he repeats.
*Entrainment!!!,* I think to myself, *if he keeps repeating me, this crisis is over. Tone, content, and rhythm are all mine if he repeats. And I’m calm. All I need is a few minutes, but it will end well.*
“I ask for peace.”
“I ask for peace.”
“I ask that you bring healing to the suffering”
“I ask that you bring healing to the suffering”
“And that all good things come to pass”
Unfortunately, I don’t get my few minutes. The distant sound of sirens is growing louder in a way that makes me know that emergency services are here. A large ambulance pulls around me. The man yells over the sound of the siren.
“I didn’t hear you, what’d you say?”
I shout at the top of my lungs. “And that all good things come to pass!”
“AND THAT ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO PASS!” he bellows back at me over the sound of the engine. I can tell he wants me to continue, but I can’t help but turn to the emergency responders who are getting out of their vehicle. One of them starts talking to the naked man. I don’t hear what the paramedic says, but the naked man’s response is vehement. He waves violently, dismissing them angrily, and points at me.
“I’m talking to HIM!” he shouts at them.
They don’t turn and look at me. *Rude,* I think at first, *can’t they see we are having a conversation?* But no, they see “crazy,” so they don’t see the context of the interaction that makes his yelling make sense. Just like I saw only “crazy” first. They say something else. He repeats his insistence in talking to me. *Us vs Them, it’ll work for now. But we need us and us by the end.*
“Do you want a blanket? Are you cold?” the female paramedic asks. Before he can respond, I echo her.
“Do you want a blanket?” I echo. He looks at me, then at them, then back at me.
I make a decision. I am in control of this situation. They are going to start asking him questions, which he will need to respond to. So let’s get him in the question answering mode.
“What’s your name, sir?” I ask.
“Robert,” [changed for privacy]. “My name is Robert….” He says his last name, but I can’t hear it over the engine of the ambulance.
“My name is Tim Huffman,” I say, “Good to meet you, Robert.”
“Tim Hoffer,” Robert repeats. Close enough.
“Where do you live?” the male paramedic asks politely.
Robert answers him. Thank god. This might go well. The paramedic are calm, I’m calm, and Robert is calm. It is then the police officer arrives.
He comes up from behind me. He is short and he is wearing sunglasses. His shoulders are back, and he has an alpha male swagger about him. He walks directly toward Robert, stepping between Robert and me.
“Where are your clothes?” the officer demands. In my memory, he asks “Where the hell are your clothes?” Maybe he didn’t cuss, maybe he did. But his tone was unmistakably insulting.
Robert points at the cop and screams, “He’s gonna try to kill me. He’s gonna kill me!”
*Not today, Robert. We can solve this.* I speak before anyone else has a chance to talk.
“Hey Robert, can I ask you a question?”
“Where are your clothes?”
“Where are my clothes?” he says, genuinely.
“They are back that way,” I point.
At this point, the female paramedic steps forward.
“Would you like to come into the ambulance so we can get you warm and take care of you?”
Everyone pauses. The police officer is standing back. The female paramedic is standing forward, arms in an open posture. Robert looks me straight in the eyes with a simple, clear, and honest question.
“What do you think?”
My heart breaks. I can hear a tinge of defiance in his voice, but I also hear fear. He is afraid for his life. He can’t trust the system designed to help him, in part, because it isn’t only designed to help him. It also harms him and fails him. I look at the two paramedics. Then at the police officer. I sound out my thought slowly.
“Robert… I don’t know these people, but I don’t think they are here to hurt you. I think they are here to help you. I think that if you get into their ambulance, they will get you a blanket and clothing and take care of you.”
Without pause, with a certainty that I don’t feel, Robert nods.
He steps toward the ambulance. I feel the need to leave. Parked in front of the fire hydrant when I knew the police were coming. As he is entering the ambulance, I call out to him.
“Robert,” I catch his eye. “Bless you.”
“What?” he yells at me over its engine.
“Bless you, Robert!” I yell.
“Thank you. And bless you!” he yells back. And steps into the ambulance. The perfect, poetic end to an interaction of yelled prayers.
Kristen tells me that I did the right thing. That me being there helped things go peacefully. But I’ve helped enough people to the door of services to know that this isn’t necessarily a happy ending. I have no idea how Robert is tonight. I have no idea how his ambulance ride went. I have no idea how the medical and legal system will treat him.
There are a lot of things I don’t know. But I do know at least one thing.
There is profound power when we meet people where they are. They might be screaming about God in the middle of the road. But sometimes, all we really need is someone to scream about God in the middle of the road with us.