Who really cared? His was a routine admission to busy Bellevue Hospital. A charity case, one among hundreds. A bum from the Bowery with a slashed throat. The Bowery . . . last stop before the morgue. Synonym of filth, loneliness, cheap booze, drugs, and disease.
The details of what had happened in the predawn of that chilly winter’s morning were fuzzy. The nurse probably shrugged it off. She had seen thousands and she was sure to see thousands more. Would it have made any difference if she and those who treated him had known who he was? Probably so.
His recent past was the antithesis of his earlier years. The Bowery became the dead-end street of an incredible life. On that icy January morning before the sun had crept over New York’s skyline, in a 25-cent-a-night flophouse, a shell of a man who looked twice his age staggered to the wash basin and fell. The basin toppled and shattered.
He was found lying in a heap, naked and bleeding from a deep gash in his throat. His forehead was badly bruised and he was semiconscious. A doctor was called, no one special—remember, this was the Bowery. He used black sewing thread that somebody had found to suture the wound. That would do. All the while the bum begged for a drink. A buddy shared the bottom of a rum bottle to calm his nerves.
He was dumped in a paddy wagon and dropped off at Bellevue Hospital, where he would languish, unable to eat for three days . . . and die. Still unknown.
A friend seeking him was directed to the local morgue. There, among dozens of other colorless, nameless corpses with tags on their toes, he was identified. When they scraped together his belongings, they found a ragged, dirty coat with 38 cents in one pocket and a scrap of paper in the other. All his earthly goods. Enough coins for another night in the Bowery and five words, “Dear friends and gentle hearts.” Almost like the words of a song, someone thought. But who cared?
Why in the world would a forgotten drunk carry around a line of lyrics? Maybe he still believed he had it in him. Maybe that derelict with the body of a bum still had the heart of a genius. For once upon a time, long before his tragic death at age 38, he had written songs that literally made the whole world sing, such as:
“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”
“Old Folks at Home”
“My Old Kentucky Home”
And 200 more that have become deeply rooted in our rich American heritage. Thanks to Stephen Foster, whom nobody knew. And for whom nobody cared.
Deep within many a forgotten life is a scrap of hope, a lonely melody trying hard to return. Some are in prison. Some in hospitals. Some in nursing homes. And some silently slip into church on Sunday morning, terribly confused and afraid. Until someone steps in. And stoops down. And, in love, rebuilds a life, restores a soul, rekindles a flame that sin snuffed out, and renews a song that once was there.
Do you care? Enough “to show hospitality to strangers,” as Hebrews 13:2 puts it? It also says that in doing so, we occasionally “entertain angels without knowing it.”
Angels that don’t look anything like angels. Some might look like bums from the Bowery, but they may have a song dying in their hearts because nobody knows and nobody cares.
When you next encounter someone who is lost or hungry or hurting—how can you be ready to help? Be specific as well as realistic.