The Red-Letter Gospel of a Homeless Poet


Seattle’s evening rush hour traffic had finally eased off. An all-day rain had soaked the city silver. A man wearing a bear pelt cape called out as I exited Seattle’s Grand Hyatt Hotel.

“Hey Miss!”

Unsure who he was speaking to, I turned and faced him. Ratty dark hair hung in shoulder-length dreads.  He wore green wool gloves, the fingertips cut out, and held a small white pad in one hand and a red felt-tip pen in the other.

“Can I write a poem for you?” A smile illuminated his face. Kindness filled the creases around his eyes, his forehead, and his mouth.

“A poem?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. Pressing the white pad to the palm of his left hand, he began to scratch out something.

Intrigued, I stood there, as people in a hurry passed us by.

“How much?” I asked.

“Fifteen dollars.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “But only if you let me buy you a cup of coffee, too.”

The entire staff at the Starbucks turned and stared as we entered. I was still in business dress from my day at the recording studio.  The poet wore street dirt like an armadillo’s armor, protection against the elements.

We found a corner table, near two city cops in uniform, the only available space. As he continued to scribble, the poet told me he knew things, saw things that others missed. He rambled, incoherently mostly, about growing up in strange and distant land, a place where constellations and dreams, not books and education, directed the path of one’s life. If you listened carefully enough, the street poet didn’t sound as odd as he looked, robed in bear fur and hunched over a steaming cup of Starbucks brew.

“Isn’t it hard to be living on the streets in the cold, the rain?” I asked during one of his more lucid moments.

“No,” he answered.  There’s a shelter where he takes refuge when the cold is biting. He has found community among others who acknowledge him as the poet prophet. He had torn through the stack of white pad papers. Every now and then he would stop and read to me from his poetry.

He claimed he was a Shaman exiled from an arid land of prickly bushes and talcum dust. The Divine had brought him here, to this city of a people blessed. Drawing concentric circles, he tried to explain his existence and mine but the geometry of life eludes me, indeed, confounds me. I didn’t understand a word of what he was drawing.

The Shaman continued his rambling about life in that other land, the one where his father rejected him and poetry overtook him. Then, he stopped writing and tore a scribbled note from his pad and handed it to me. Taking the paper, I glanced over the red-lettered gospel of a homeless poet: Rain is a blessing. Every drop with another brings us all together.

Rain? A blessing? In Seattle? The land of yellow slickers and mud puddles?

Then, I recalled the Shaman had grown up in a far-away place. A dusty place. A land where wells run dry and river beds crack like sidewalk concrete in the unforgiving heat. The street poet wrote with a wisdom God had granted him. Indeed, rain can be a salvation, grace from above, to those whose farmlands have withered.

It is disturbingly easy to dismiss the unstable among us as foolish. What understanding, we reason, could they know of the deep wisdom of God?

Plenty it seems.

Where we all too often see bleakness, they envision a blessing.

Where have you seen despair turn into blessing?

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