Amazing Grace

I first met Star twenty years ago when he was living on the streets in New York City.  He earned an honest living on Astor Street, selling objects that had been discarded. He was a sober, well-dressed and soft-spoken 28-year-old African-American. “Paul,” he said, “you wouldn’t believe what people throw away.” Everything he was wearing had been thrown out, including his perfectly fitted designer jeans. I picked up two art deco lamps displayed on his blanket. Then realized I didn’t have my wallet on me.  On my way home to get some money I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Here, you can have them,” Star said. I felt so touched that a man with so little could be so generous.

Star was sleeping in Tompkins Square Park. Two years earlier, he had come home and found his wife with another man. He moved out and could no longer focus at work, and  lost his foreman janitorial job. When Star was 3, his alcoholic father left home. “I promised myself I would never do that to my kids, and here I went and did it.” 

I spent some free time over the next four years helping him get off the streets. With help from my friends, Star found work and we took him back to see his kids. His two sons rushed to hug him. Star said it was the best day of his life. It was an incredible experience for me. It was as if I was simply helping myself.

I saw so much of myself in Star. I still harbored resentments from my childhood—the fear of my dad, or who I had made him out to be. I was still holding resentment for something my dad yelled at me years ago: “Wake up, you’ll never amount to anything.”

Star found work and a place to live for six months, but quit because his boss kept yelling racial slurs. He wound up back on the streets. When I left town a few times a month, Star stayed in my apartment. I came back once to find my tv, VCR, and radio missing. Star had succumbed to heroin. I had no anger towards him, which surprised me. This was a momentary lapse, not indicative of who he truly was.  It spoke to the pain he was in.  He needed me even more now.  I didn’t take it personally at all. I realized also, my dad’s momentary lapses of temper, simply revealed his pain.  Both men loved me  and had their own hardships to get through. 

Maybe I had a lesson to learn about boundaries, but I knew Star was a good man who was lost. Humiliated, he apologized profusely. I told him our friendship was more important than my possessions.

When I met Star, all my energy had been going into my stand-up comedy career, which was daunting. I was so afraid of what I needed: to be famous, to prove myself, to pay rent. I had no time for a balanced life of vacations, relationships or sunsets. Being with Star opened my heart. I knew he would prevail.

Five years after meeting Star, I moved to Los Angeles, where my career faltered. I was 37, at the lowest point in my life. I went bankrupt, felt bankrupt, dad was right. Yet I soon saw my dad in a new light. I was embarrassed all those years because he was a mailman and janitor and drove a ten-year-old car. Dad provided for seven sons. I couldn’t afford to feed a party of one. I saw dad had always been fighting for me. I was fighting against him. When we are young, we have fear, and not knowing it is coming from within ourselves, we project it out onto the person who brings it up in us. I kept gathering evidence to affirm an unchallenged, unconscious belief: I don’t belong. This world doesn’t support me. 

I was down on my luck in Los Angeles when Star called. He was now a building manager, finishing college, back in his sons’ lives and sober for four years. He said, “I can’t thank you enough for all you did for me, Paul.” 

I teared up. If Star prevailed, so could I.

I heard my dad words in a different light. He was right: I wouldn’t amount to anything if I didn’t wake up. I was doomed if I continued life with my current mindset. Someone once complimented my shirt, and I thought, What’s wrong with my pants? My world was dark because I kept putting out the light. 

When I reconnected with Star recently, I learned that he went blind four years ago. His upbeat attitude amazed me. “Paul, not once have I asked, ‘Why me?’ Aside from the initial shock and fear, I have a new place of gratitude, and oddly enough, I have a vision I never had.” 

Paul, as a child my biggest fear was the dark. Can you believe that? Now I get around on my own, cross the street on my own. Sometimes I get help, but I can do more than I ever thought. I do my own laundry, cook my own meals. I have a new awareness. I know where every single item in my apartment is. While I was in rehab, a man took us out on walks, pointed out where the coffee shops were, the hot dog stands and the banks. He did this every day for two weeks. I later found out he was totally blind himself from birth. Can you believe it? Paul, that’s when I knew I could handle this. I have my children in my life. I have survived so much. My mom raised seven kids. I could see the dirt through the floorboards in our kitchen. Get this, we had no stove; my mom would make French toast with an iron. Paul, that all prepared me to handle this. My family helps me, and my friends. I am blessed.

Just when I was getting too caught up in my career and money, Star reminds me what it’s all about. Being. Being grateful. Getting in touch with the vision behind our seeing, the vision that we came into this life with and the vision that lives on. 

I realized what Star had given me: He let me help him. I’m considering buying a house and mentioned it to my dad. He was thrilled. A week later I opened a letter from him with a generous check to help with the deposit. 

For years I wanted my dad to apologize, not ever realizing all the good things and deeds he repeatedly has done for me, especially looking past the chip on my shoulder to continue to help me. Dad has always been there for me.  And what illuminated me to all this was a stranger offering me two lamps. 

I see the grunt work love requires, the love my father’s offer represents. I see how easy it is to hurt someone, how devastating it is to have your love unaccepted. I have graciously accepted Dad’s help and our faltering, expanding hearts.