July 23, 2014 10:14:57 AM
As I was leaving Starkville Community Theatre one recent evening after rehearsals and walking to my car, a voice with a heavy Spanish accent said, "Catholic church?" quite loudly.
"What's that?" I said, turning around.
"I'm looking for the Catholic church," said a short older man. He wore a tucked-in white-button-down shirt, jeans and white baseball cap and he carried two medium-sized pieces of luggage. He looked like he might be Hispanic, but I wasn't sure.
"It's just down this street," I answered, pointing east down University Drive.
"Is close enough to walk?" he asked.
Without really thinking about it, I said, "Well, yes, but I can just drive you. It'll be easier."
"You will drive me?" he said.
"Sure, sure." I replied. "Hop in."
"Oh, God bless you, God bless you" he said, over and over. Once we'd piled into the car, we chatted. He was heading back to Mexico, had most recently been in Georgia, and had walked a "long, long way" that day (He was rather aromatic, so I had no problem believing this last point.). We exchanged names, but he didn't articulate his very well, so I didn't fully catch it, and the quick pace of our conversation kept me from asking him to say it again. He then asked if I was Catholic and, after I'd said no, asked what church I attended. I told him I wasn't religious, and he seemed dumbfounded by this. "No religious? You not a Christian? But you look like a Christian!" I smiled and laughed quietly.
His intent with going to the church, of course, was to find the priest and see if he could spend the night there. He said someone had told him the priest's house was behind the sanctuary, but when we got back there, none of the nearby houses seemed like obvious choices, and none had any lights on. And I must confess that when we rolled into a particularly dark part of the parking lot, it occurred to me that being in a deserted, unlit parking lot with someone I presumed to be a hitchhiker was not the smartest, safest situation into which I could have gotten myself.
But nothing happened. Like me, he apparently sensed that approaching random, lightless houses after 9 p.m. was unwise, so he asked if I knew any cheap hotels, saying he only had about $34. I said yes and drove him to - naturally - The Regal Inn. My reasoning was (a) it's cheap (in every sense of that word), (b) it has Dave's Darkhorse Tavern (and thus food) onsite, and (c) we'd likely raise fewer eyebrows there (incongruous pair that we were) than if we strolled into, say, the Hilton Garden Inn.
As it turns out, the Regal Inn clerk's eyebrows raised a bit anyway: "Uh, gentlemen, what can I do for you?" he said as we came in, that "Uh" speaking volumes about the sight I'm sure the two of us made.
"This man needs a room for the night. Do you have anything available?" I said.
"Yep. Got one king and one double-bed," he replied. "They're both smoking rooms." He looked at my new friend as he said this last bit.
"Is OK, is OK," my friend said. The clerk then passed a guest-info card to him across the desk and said, "That'll be $49." I handed him my credit card, and as my friend saw this he quietly exclaimed, "Oh, God bless you, God bless you." When he finished filling out the info card, I took it, wrote my name and number on the back, gave it to the clerk, and said, "Just in case you need to reach me."
Back outside, we got his bags out of the car, I made sure he knew his room number, and I told him he could get some food inside the tavern. He said he wanted to pray with me, and I said "OK," holding his hand as he prayed aloud fervently in a mix of Spanish and English, calling me "my dear brother John" and (I think) asking that I get rich from creating a "computer book for teaching the people all over the world." (I'd earlier told him I taught at the university, which launched him into an impassioned monologue about how teachers can create "computer books" that help teach people everywhere.)
"How will you be getting to Mexico?" I asked when he finished, kind of already knowing the answer but wanting to verify it.
"The truckers. They help me," he replied.
"OK, sir," I said and patted him on the back. "Sleep well. Travel safely tomorrow."
"Thank you, my dear brother John. Thank you," he said, and walked across the parking lot toward the rooms.
I wish I'd have gotten him a room at a nicer hotel. I wish I'd had any cash on me at all so I could have given it all to him. I wish I hadn't been in such a hurry to get home and had instead taken him to get some food or at least gone into the Tavern and bought him some.
I wish I had caught his name.
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