J.J. told me that one day when I remarked that he never complained. It was the kind of answer I would have expected from more fortunate people counting their blessings on the northside, not a 50-year-old homeless guy.
I met J.J. a few months ago, when I was volunteering at a soup kitchen called Casa Maria on the southside of Tucson.
J.J. has been helping out there for a while. He is different from many of the other volunteers, who range from local neighbors to retired professors, and even include students from a school for the deaf and blind. It is an eclectic group with a variety of beliefs and backgrounds, but unlike the others, J.J. came down a different path--the long line of homeless guys waiting for food outside the kitchen. With his big smile and willingness to help, he was welcomed at the kitchen and eventually earned a spot in the shelter across the street, too.
Sometimes, after the kitchen closed, the two of us would sit down for a while and talk. Though little hints of his troubled past came out in our conversations, I never gave it much thought. I had my own worries. Plus, I didn't know him from Adam. I just took his words at face value for the time being--until the accident.
A couple weeks ago, J.J. got hit by a car that shattered his left leg. I went to visit him, because J.J. didn't have any family in Tucson. As usual, J.J. welcomed me with a big smile. We talked about people down at the kitchen, but eventually drifted into deeper things in life. Soon, I began to feel like I was reading chapters from a great epic novel.
J.J.'s childhood was filled with tough times. Born to an abusive father and alcoholic mother, he was in and out of orphanages in Illinois for a number of years. By age 13, he left home and went on the road. He did whatever was necessary to survive. He slept on park benches and helped out at the local supermarkets before hopping trains in search of odd jobs in other cities. For almost a decade, he migrated across the country, moving furniture and working construction jobs.
At age 30, his luck finally changed; J.J. settled back in Illinois and met a nice woman. The two got married, and a few years later, they had a daughter--things seemed to be going well for the first time in his life.
One Christmas Eve, he received a phone call at work. His wife and daughter had been hit by a drunk driver. By the time he reached the hospital, his wife had died. A few minutes later, his daughter passed away in his arms.
"After that, I always had to keep moving," he explained.
Years went by, and J.J. drifted across the country, again. He traveled to scores of places like the Ozark Mountains, where he could be alone. Sometimes, he took drugs to make his pain go away.
Eventually, he landed in Tucson, moving in and out of the city regularly and hanging out at different soup kitchens, like most of the other homeless guys. But one day--while waiting for a meal at Casa Maria--one of the guys running the operation asked him for a hand.
"That's when things changed for me," J.J. explained. "It made me realize that saying thanks for a meal wasn't good enough."
From that point forward, he began helping out as much as possible. The more he helped, the better he felt. His smile returned, too. He even spoke at elementary schools to tell his story to kids. In time, Casa set him up with a temporary place to stay.
The other day, when I went down to the soup kitchen, I caught up to J.J. He was busy rolling around in his wheel chair and picking up trash.
"How is the leg feeling?" I asked.
"No complaints," he said, then added, with a smile, "Complaints ain't worth a dead rattler to nobody in Tucson."
Later, as I headed back to my apartment, my mind wandered. I thought how many of us live in much better conditions than J.J. Some of us go about the day just trying to make it through and rarely smiling. We worry about little problems that pale by comparison. We complain. Then I think of J.J. and his smile. And it puts life in perspective.