- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

We never have enough time, certainly not this season of the year. The distractions and interruptions keep coming as the holiday bears down on us like a freight train, and the unimportant things keep getting in the way of the important ones. But which is which?

It was a day just like today, another Dec. 21 almost 40 years ago in Pine Bluff,, Ark., when they found him out by the railroad tracks that freezing morning.

I found him by the railroad track this morning./I could see that he was nearly dead./I knelt down beside him and I listened./Just to hear the words the dying fellow said.

Johnny Cash, “Give My Love to Rose”

Unbidden, untended, unnoticed, he lay there. For who knows how long. He had come at an inconvenient time — just four days before all Christendom celebrates the birth of Him who said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me.”

He was just another bum down on his luck, riding the rails, and sick at that. He was heading West, but this would prove the end of the line. He wasn’t sick enough for the hospital to take him in, but he was too sick for the Salvation Army to accept him.

And so, all through the short, waning hours of that Dec. 21, the shortest day and longest night of the year, he was trundled back and forth, from one station of his cross to the next, until by nightfall there was no place for him but the county jail. Not because he belonged there, God knows, but because he didn’t belong anywhere else.

And night fell.

That cell would be the last place he would know in this life. He would die there unattended, in the darkness, some time during the long night. As alone as any of us in the end. When they found him, they shipped out the body quickly, no questions asked, before an autopsy could be performed. And he was gone, as silent as he had arrived. And that might have been the end of it.

But the newspaper got wind of the story. It took a while to confirm the basic facts, and much longer to ferret out the details.

In the end, more would be known about how this wayfarer had died, hour by hour, than how he had lived, year after unrecorded year. For his was an unimportant life by the world’s spotty reckoning — a forgotten grayness punctuated here and there by a vague brush with the law, the traces of a family, an illness no one ever quite diagnosed … all the ordinary desperations of such a life. Or rather existence.

It took the longest time just to discover his name: Joe Telles, as in Tell Us.

It was as if the only mission Joe Telles had ever completed had been reserved for that last, mercifully shortest day of the year. He had passed through like a messenger unheeded, yet the message would be remembered every Dec. 21. Somebody would see to that.

Strange how things work out. And how you never know, really, why you should be in a certain place at a certain time. There are no coincidences, a rabbi once told me. Maybe I’m not here to think deep thoughts and write about big issues and new paradigms. Maybe I was just meant to say kaddish for Joe Telles every Dec. 21.

It’s the prayer you say on the anniversary of a death, but it’s a prayer for the living, really. Nowhere does it mention death. There are a lot of Joe Telleses still out there, and they could use a lot more than prayers.

What a strange gift this Joe Telles was — unrecognized, even rejected and resented. Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.

It happens every Dec. 21, four days before Christmas: Joe Telles arrives again. Sick unto death, at the end of his rope, one of the poor in spirit. And he reminds us that no holiday — no holy day — is properly celebrated without remembering the poor, comforting the distraught, tending the sick and seeing, really seeing, the least of these. And for one blessed moment knowing what is important.

Men are taught to lift their eyes, but they may forget to just look around. Show us a sign, we say, as if there were not signs everywhere. We seek the Star, and may not perceive the light of every day, or hear that lonesome whistle, and see our brother approaching.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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