I posted this a while ago on Myspace, but I was down at the Tarrant County Courthouse the other day and it reminded me of this story.
Tonight, I went to visit a friend at Tarrant County Jail.
On the way in, a man stepped up to me and asked for help: "My name is Elijah and I jest got outta this place. Damn! Sweet Jesus I need to get home to Waco!"
I wasn't sure what to say. I told him that I needed to go in to see a friend and that maybe we could talk on my way out. I don't know why I said it. But I did and I thought nothing more of it.
I've never been to jail. I've never visited anyone in jail. I checked in and eventually they called my name and I was given a sign with a number on it. I was told to step into an elevator with no buttons and hold up the sign to a camera in the elevator. The elevator let me off at the right floor, I stepped up to the plexiglass window, and picked up the phone.
We talked for twenty minutes or so. He asked about Lorri and the girls and I asked how he was doing. He said jail was like the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day" but much less funny. We laughed. He said he was going to be out in a few days and that the charges against him would most likely be dropped. I was glad for him and when I left I felt pretty good. Much better than I thought I would when I went in.
I didn't see Elijah on my way out. But he saw me.
"So can ya help me? I jest wanna get back to Waco." I just wanted to go home. I had been at school since 8:30. I conferenced with 20 students, taught my lit class, worked on my job apps, and wrote some more dissertation. I had been on campus for about 11 hours when I packed my stuff up and headed for Tarrant County Jail. But then Elijah.
But then Elijah, something whispered.
But I'm exhausted.
But then Elijah.
I turned and really looked at Elijah for the first time. He was about my age, a little shorter, African-American, sunglasses, t-shirt. It was a chilly night and Elijah wrapped his arms around his chest and shivered.
"I can't take you to Waco," I found myself saying. But then Elijah. "But I can take you to the Greyhound Station." Part of my brain was yelling at the rest of me: "This isn't a good idea. He might be dangerous. You don't know his story. What if he's violent? What if . . ."
But then Elijah . . .
"C'mon. I'll drive you to the station and buy you a ticket."
Elijah climbed into the passenger seat and we took off. I drove to the station and Elijah talked about his arrest. He said he was taken in for having outstanding traffic tickets. He had a construction job and an apartment in Waco, but he had come to Fort Worth to visit his sister. His car had been impounded for ten days and he couldn't afford to pay the impound fees. He was afraid his job would be gone when he got back to Waco. He was worried because he was two weeks behind on his rent. He was thankful to be out of jail.
I went into the station with him and bought his ticket. He had a four hour lay-over in Dallas so I gave him all the cash in my pocket -- seven dollars and change -- so he could buy some breakfast in the morning. "My name is Elijah," he said. "I thank you." His voice was low and serious. I had nothing to say so I stood there for a second. Elijah awkwardly hugged me and went back inside.
"Thank you Jesus!" His voice echoed down the empty street.
I crossed the street, climbed into my Jeep, and began the drive home. And as I drove, I began to shrink. I felt small. I felt like the roof of my Jeep was gone, replaced with emptiness. Space. I couldn't look up for fear that I would fall out. I drove home with the universe trailing from the top of my car.
But then Elijah.
But then Elijah.