I stepped out of the Five Points Marta station in Atlanta early one Sunday morning. The event in downtown was over. People had descended upon the city like vultures to a carcass then abandoned it en masse and left it bare-boned in the sun.
The vultures left their mark behind. Debris littered the streets, the likes of which I had only seen in New York City when I once visited there. New York City is accustomed to filth and grime, making it part of the scenery. Atlanta, with her genteel upbringing, is offended by such monstrosity. She likes her streets clean, her recycling and garbage in their proper containers. I was appalled by the lack of consideration of others in repaying the city’s hospitality by littering in such a manner.
As I walked, unutterable dark thoughts crossed my mind. Until I heard something that gave me pause. A voice, lifted in song, drifting to me in the cool of the quiet early morning.
Just ahead of me, across the street, was an elderly African-American man projecting a song. Projecting is the proper word for the resonation of his voice and the conviction of his words more than made up for his lack of tonality. His white hair sat atop his head like snow atop a mountain. He wore grungy jeans and shirt, and carried a garbage bag, procured from the container at the opposite end of his sidewalk. He filled it with the garbage even as he sang. His pace was leisurely: he enjoyed his task. He was not wearing an orange vest as I had seen city workers wear. The task he undertook was of his own choosing and he joyfully went about his work.
He was singing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old gospel song. I watched and listened, mesmerized by this man’s voice rising with the early morning dawn, lifting on the wings of a pigeon, reverberating off the concrete sidewalks, the street, the buildings. That voice came from deep within him and it shook me to my very soul.
For a moment, I thought of the man as a preacher, singing his gospel. His congregation was the pigeons and concrete and buildings. He spoke his sermon with each act of picking up trash and placing it into his garbage bag.
I turned to enter my building, then stopped. What better things had I to do? There was time to get breakfast, time for coffee and reading the paper. There was time to build my psyche and steel my nerves for the job ahead. There is always time. But there are so few moments. And this was a moment. A moment which would pass this way but once, and would not pass this way again. Not for all the time in the world.
This man found it within himself to forgive the inconsideration of others. Instead of harboring ill thoughts or feelings, he chose to practice the act of forgiveness in the words of his song and the rustle of his bag as he carried it along the sidewalk.
I crossed the street and procured one of the bags from the unmarked cart. As the gentleman reached the refrain of “Swing Low” I joined him in the song, my voice all the more off-key than his own, and began picking up garbage from my end of the block.
He looked up, surprised, but he smiled at me, never breaking the song or his stride. I tried to match the resonance and conviction in his voice.
For forty-five minutes, we worked together, making our way towards the middle of the block. Passersby noticed. Some stared. None offered assistance.
When we met in the middle, bags full and the job done, we put our arms around each other’s waists and sang together one final refrain.
We walked down the sidewalk and placed our full bags into the trash can.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said the gentleman as I grasped his hand and shook it.
“No, sir,” I said, “thank you.”
I watched as he pushed the cart down to the next block, singing as he went. What a beautiful way to start a Sunday morning, cleaning the streets of the city that I call home, alongside a total stranger who is my fellow man. What more profound gospel to sing than the words of a song whose refrain reminds us our time here is borrowed and the moments so precious few.
What better forgiveness?