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Homeless man finds 'Magic World' on Eighth Street

Nov. 4, 2005

by JUSTIN JAKSHA, columnist

"Say! I've got a hankering for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

A hankering. Did he really just tell me he had a hankering?

Unbelievable.

I just watched him take two free sack lunches and devour a pudding cup and juice pouch in less time than it takes me to tie my shoes, and he's asking for more food.

He has eaten more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches this week than I did in my entire middle school career. Does he not understand that most college kids, me in particular, have incomes about as dependable as his? It's not like I wipe my mouth with twenties.

I pause. Then it hits me.

It always hits a few minutes later, like the sonic boom after an F-18 darts by. I am so selfish.

I make the sandwich.

This is "Reggie," the 52-year-old homeless star of 8th Street. He has lived on the streets for nearly 30 years and has the stories to prove it. He has a long spiel about his life's trials and joys that he can spout off better than most waiters describing the soup d'jour. Somewhere in the story, I can guarantee that you'll hear about getting shot with a shotgun and a few hernia surgeries.

He'll also preach at you a bit. The sermons vary, but the altar call always leads to the ultimate question: "Can I shine your tires?"

If this is your first time to meet Reggie, you will definitely hear the whole spiel. If you're fortunate (most are), he'll sing "Magic World." That's my favorite act. It's a song he wrote about heaven.

His best performance was a few weeks ago when my roommate Jacob's family was visiting from Little Rock. Reggie was staying in the abandoned house next door. They wanted to see the house. They were in for a treat.

As if on cue, Reggie bounded out. You'd have thought this was his family returning from war. Eyes glowing and arms wide open, he took to Jacob's father first.

"Hey, my father!" Reggie said with a strong embrace.

"My sisters! My brother! My Christian brothers!"

They were frozen. Hands might have moved to cover wallets and wrists moved behind backs to conceal watches and rings. What in the world was going on?

I loved it. I've seen it before, but it never gets old. Reggie knows how to be resilient. It didn't matter that this was Jacob's family. Half the time he got me and Jacob mixed up anyway. This was a new opportunity, and Reggie rose to the occasion. It's not like he was inside cleaning before we dropped by.

He was sleeping, and boy can Reggie sleep. He was a ready soldier, though. His boot camp has been the streets, and he knows how to wake up and act appropriately.

Shots fired.

New people.

Dirty tires.

After hugs came the spiel, this time particularly praising of Jacob and the rest of us for being "good Christian brothers." Jacob's family must have been so proud of us.

In the midst of the fun and laughs, I always face a dilemma. I really want to believe Reggie. Each time he starts talking like that, I want to believe there's hope. I really do. But I also recognize that he needs a friend more than a bystander, and truth more than a pacifying answer.

Faith and foolishness walk as closely as brothers when dealing with Reggie, and the rest of this neighborhood, for that matter. But each time Reggie smiles, fresh faith stirs in my heart like the bottom of a blender and I find myself using multiple straws that I swore were the last. Maybe that is what grace is.

After the compact autobiography, it was time for the performance.

"Can I sing that song I wrote?" he asked, as if we were going to say no. He was heading home and there was no way we'd tag him out here. We knew what was coming and approved enthusiastically.

He was in the middle of us now, and we formed a circle around him. Jacob and I were smiling. Jacob's dad looked calm. The rest looked skeptical. Reggie looked confident. He stood in the middle, head held high like a circus conductor. Which was fitting, since Jacob's family might have been more comfortable on a tight rope.

"Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die," Reggie said. This was the icebreaker. He would repeat it until there was a response, just like the preacher at the church across the street.

"I said, everybody wants to go to heaven ... but nobody wants to die. It don't matter whether you black or white -- when you die, your body does not die with you. It's the spirit that goes."

And that led into the song about heaven, where "all the children are healthy" and where "the devil don't want you." I hoped Reggie would make it to "Magic World." It doesn't have to be mansions as long as it's not the streets.

Justin Jaksha is a senior communication specialist from Houston.