“What the recipient of alms does for the donor is greater than what the donor does for the recipient.”
–Vayikra Rabbah 34:8
Less than a year ago, Eddie Scholl had been living on the streets. When he saw the old man in the torn olive green coat and rainbow stocking cap standing on the street corner on a freezing November morning, holding a sign saying “Anything helps”, he reached for his wallet.
His last five dollar bill. He could use it to buy breakfast. Instead, he gave it to the old grey beard.
“Bless you, brother. Bless you.”
“Glad to do it, friend. Take care.”
Eddie walked on with the old gent still calling after him, “Bless you, brother. May God bless you.”
Less than a year ago, Eddie had been living on the streets, sleeping below freeway overpasses, panhandling on street corners, in the parking lot at Wal-Mart, broiling in the summer and freezing in the winter.
Sometimes he stayed in shelters, but his property came up missing far too often, and then there were the occasional fist fights over nothing but someone’s delusions.
He’d gotten a job, gotten a cheap apartment, lost the job six-months later because he showed up for work with a hangover once too often, and has been sofa surfing ever since.
He got kicked out of his last place earlier this morning because he couldn’t rustle up enough money to pay for his host’s drug habit.
Good riddance to the place, anyway. By some miracle, Eddie had been sober for the past month, going to AA meetings every day. Maybe someone there could think of a place for him to stay, maybe even some day work.
He’d been lost in thought and it took Eddie a second to realize someone was calling his name.
He turned toward the little restaurant he’d been walking past.
“Josepe!” Eddie hadn’t seen Jos in years, not since his divorce from Kimmie. Jos was a good shoulder to cry on, him having gone through the divorce wars himself, but they’d drifted apart after Eddie started hitting the bottle.
“What’s going on? C’mon in. Let me show you the new place.”
Eddie looked up at the sign over the door. “Guernica” it said in large, proud letters with “Fine Basque Cuisine and Culture” underneath.
He followed Jos inside. “Want some coffee? Still take it black, don’t you?”
“Yes and sure.” Eddie could have used a meal too, but he was grateful for anything he could get.
Jos motioned him to a stool at the counter, stepped behind and poured Eddie a cup of French Roast.
Handing it to his old friend, Jos said, “Fresh brewed. Won’t find a better cup of coffee in Boise.”
“Hey, Buddy. What’s up as in you look down?”
Before Jos could suggest it, “No, I’m not boozing, but sobriety’s only a month old this time around.”
“Going to AA?”
“Yeah, about the only place I can go.” Eddie warmed his hands on the cup.
“Need a job? My cousin Al was supposed to come on board as a dishwasher, but he flaked out. Thinks he’s too good for the work.”
“You offering me a job, Jos?” Eddie immediately brightened up.
“You bet, but you know the rules.”
“I know. No boozing. Show up on time. Do the job right. Leave when you’re finished, not when you’re tired.”
Jos smiled and then let his face relax as he gave Eddie a serious assessment. Eddie knew his old friend was wondering if he could be trusted. He felt this time he could, but he’d have to prove it.
“Got a place to stay?”
“Not since this morning.”
“Look, I’ve got a spare room in the basement of my place. It’s not much, but…”
“Anything would be great, Jos. You don’t know how much I appreciate it.”
“I guess I’m going to find out.”
Eddie couldn’t blame Jos for being suspicious. He’d blown it plenty of times, so he deserved this treatment. If God be willing, Eddie would crawl out of the hole this time and stay out.
“Oh, I hate to even ask, but do you think you could advance me a little for breakfast?”
“Sure. I’d be a crummy chef if I couldn’t whip you up a few eggs.”
Both men smiled and they both realized there was a long road ahead of them.
A year ago, Eddie Scholl had been homeless. The last place he’d been staying kicked him out. He’d given his last five bucks to a guy who looked worse off than he was. He’d only been sober for a month and was wondering how long that would last.
Then his friend Josepe have him a job in his new restaurant as a dishwasher and let Eddie stay in a little room in his basement. That was a year ago.
Jos and Eddie had built “Guernica” into one of the most popular bistros in the greater Treasure Valley. Eddie had worked his way up from dishwasher, to bus boy, to wait staff, and finally Assistant Manager.
He had a place of his own now, a little cottage on the edge of the North End. Just two bedrooms, but it was home.
Late Friday night. Actually early Saturday morning. Eddie was finishing cleaning up, since he’d let everyone else go home, and was taking out the last of the garbage. He was startled when he saw a figure in the shadows by the dumpster.
“Wait, brother. I mean no harm. Just looking for scraps.”
It took Eddie a second to remember the old man in the torn olive green coat, the one he gave his last five bucks to a year ago.
“I can do better than that. Come on in.” Eddie motioned him to go through the back entrance into the kitchen.
Eddie opened the fridge and pulled out the meal he’d intended to take home with him. “Have this.”
He got the older man to sit down at a little table. “Sorry. Don’t have any coffee made. Just closing up.”
“Water’d be fine, brother.”
Eddie poured a glass of ice water and handed it over, then silently watched the man wolf down the modest plate of cold lamb stew. When he was finished, he put out his right hand.
“They call me Rocko…Rocko Smythe.”
“Eddie Scholl.” They shook.
Rocko looked around. “Nice kitchen. Clean. Well ordered. You wouldn’t believe how many kitchens are so bad off they have to bribe the health inspector just to stay open.”
“You know something about it?”
“Yeah, before I hit the skids, I used to work as a chef over at the convention center.” Rocko lowered his gaze to his half consumed glass of water. “That was a long time ago, brother. A lot of wasted years have gone by since then.”
The silence stood between the two men for nearly a minute before Eddie spoke up. “Need a job?”
“It’s not much. Dishwasher quit a few hours ago and we need a replacement right away. You willing to start at the bottom?”
Brother, I’m so far down, the bottom looks up to me. Yeah, anything’s welcome. I’m ready to start looking up again.”
“Got a place to stay?”
“Nah, otherwise I’d be there now.”
“I’ve got a spare room at my place. Not much, but it’s better than sleeping beneath an underpass.”
Rocko gave Eddie a knowing look. “Something tells me you know a thing or two about sleeping under underpasses.”
They both chuckled and Eddie said, “Could be.” Then he added, “A year ago, I was the dishwasher here. Started from nothing. The rules are, no booze, show up on time, do a good job, and then leave when you’re done, not when you’re tired. Can do?”
“Can do, Eddie.”
Rocko knew Eddie was taking a big chance on him and that he’d have to prove himself, but he’d been down and out too long and was getting too old and too tired of this life. If God had ever answered his prayers, He did so tonight.
When Rocko got back on his feet, he promised that he’d pass it on. The giver gets so much more mercy and grace than the person receiving.
I got the quote I used at the beginning of this story from a small column at Aish.com written by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski. It speaks of the Jewish principle that the person giving gains more than the person receiving. The story about Eddie, Jos, and Rocko just took off from there.
“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”