The wierdos always find me. Like the guy at the BART station late one night who bared his teeth and roared, then laughed hysterically when I shrank away. Or the weathered woman on the bus who smiled at me through a set of yellowed and broken teeth, then started methodically stroking my hair. Or the guy who pulled up next to the curb on 24th Street as I walked home, motioned me over, and pointed to his dick, bulging in his pants.
I’ve decided it’s because I make eye contact in public. And smile. I used to do this a lot more, in my days as a freshly minted Christian when I believed that following God meant I could never set personal limits. I thought the way to love the world was to walk around with all my edges blurred.
I think we call this codependence now.
In any case, Francis was definitely eccentric, and he found me almost immediately. Hoary of beard and bald of pate, he lived in the woods behind my college campus and peered at the world through enormous, thick glasses. Whenever I saw him he’d be wearing a long-sleeved thermal shirt, gray twill pants and hiking boots — under a brown friar’s robe, tied at the waist with a length of dirty rope. He’d hang out in the lobby of my dining hall waiting for meal service to start, twitching his head and squinting; he was never without his battered backpack, stuffed with a well-used Bible and a sheaf of handwritten tracts meant to school the snooty college kids in the ways of the Lord.
I’d joined up with a Christian group in college almost as soon as I’d gotten there. Looking back I can see that being part of the Fellowship helped me narrow things down, helped me control that wild sense of possibility leaving home gave me. On weekends my peers were doing mushrooms in the woods and having sex and blasting Led Zepplin into the quad through their open dorm windows while I was attending ice cream socials and singing worship songs and studying the gospel of Mark in manuscript form with Fellowship members, some of whom lived communally in an enormous house just down the hill from the university.
Francis had been hanging around the group for years. He was a mascot of sorts, evidence that the Fellowship — made up primarily of middle class kids — was daring and counter-cultural and accepting and committed to serving the poor, the dispossessed, the homeless, the mentally ill. Sometime in my first year of college I met Francis at that big community house, and since I had never really encountered someone like him, I watched the older students for cues about how to handle his strange (although never dangerous) behavior. I saw casual acceptance, as if he were as familiar as furniture, and I so wanted to belong that I did not take the time to discern my own feelings about Francis and make a conscious choice about how I wanted to interact with him. Honestly, the thought of even having an internal process like this never crossed my mind. So I had no idea how to deal when Francis took a shine to me.
“KAAAAATIE!” he’d bellow across the cavernous dining hall, as soon as he caught sight of me at the top of the stairs. I’d cringe and try to hide behind a cluster of students, hoping I could blend in and sit somewhere far enough away that he wouldn’t see me and therefore I would not have to endure the rambling, incoherent conversations on the finer points of biblical exegesis or how I reminded him of his dead grandmother. Mostly, though, he’d frantically wave me over and since I didn’t have the wherewithal to politely decline I’d sink resignedly into one of the cafeteria’s plastic chairs as he slipped into his version of an Irish brogue, clapping me hard on the back. “YOU REMIND ME O’ ME OLD IRISH GRANDMOTHER!” he’d grin, his enthusiasm initiating another cascade of facial tics.
He sought my company frequently. I’d trudge to the basement to do my laundry (the very same alluded to in my earlier post, Close As Blood) and he’d be there, washing his meager bundle of clothes. Francis would see me and his face would brighten and he’d launch into whatever conspiracy theory he was obsessed with that day, his raspy voice pitched to a level suitable for communicating across a football field instead of the pitted wooden table students used for folding.
Francis frightened me, and I felt ashamed of this. Jesus had said Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth and Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect and If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward. So I believed that when other people made me uncomfortable I was doing something wrong, and needed to tap more deeply into that flow of agape nectar Jesus seemed to have in such abundance.
I think I frightened Francis, too. A few times during the four years I was at school I let him use my electric typewriter, in my room, so he could prepare his tracts; the gesture sparked one of the agitated conversations with the unseen he’d conduct in a stagey side whisper. “I don’t know. Accept the offer? Don’t know. Female.” Cough. Hack. Random humming. Throat gargle. Face twitch. “It’s just a typewriter and the Lord says…Irish grandmother. Harumph.”
The ugly truth is that I didn’t know what I actually meant to Francis, or who he really was, or what his day-to-day life was like — and honestly, I didn’t care to know. At this time in my life I was unaware that, if treated with a kind of open curiosity, the unease or disgust or guilt I felt around Francis could have given me some good information about the true nature of love and how to apply it both to myself and to him. At that time in my life, I didn’t yet understand that more often than not, love isn’t based on blurred boundaries but instead on the concrete, the practical. I didn’t yet know that love (of any kind, really) starts not with random eye contact, but with the sinuous strength of considered choice.