CONCORD, CA—In his "Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens' narrator said he always thought of Christmas as "a kind, forgiving, charitable time," and the only time he knew of in the long calendar year when people "open their shut-up hearts freely" and "think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."
This story, sent in to Concord Patch in California by a local resident there, Dan Jones, reflects that kind of thinking. It began with a message in a bottle on a day of heavy rain.
Here's the story from Jones (lightly edited for clarity and brevity):
A few weeks ago when we were having those huge rain storms, and all the flood spillways were filled high with fast rushing water, I got this fun idea. I thought I would put a message in a bottle, add my phone number to it and throw it in the fast moving water.
I had this idea that someday someone would text me from Hawaii or somewhere far, far away. The note inside the bottle read "TEXT me if you find this note and I will give you a pass for four people to go to the Oakland Zoo". I tucked the note in the bottle and threw it in the rushing water. It was washed away so fast — quickly it was out of sight and my imagination began to come up with who would find it and how faraway they would be... maybe even in China.
A few weeks went by, and low and behold I got a text. It read, "Hi, my name is J and I found your bottle with the note inside. I found it behind Sports Authority in Concord by Concord Ave."
Dang! there goes the Hawaii or China idea.
So I texted back "Do you know what you get now?" and J texted back, "Tickets?" I texted back "yep".
I texted back and said " Do you want me to mail the tickets or you want me to meet you somewhere?" The reply that I got back was not what I was expecting and just about broke my heart.
J texted back and said, "Tickets would be great, but food would be better... I'm homeless and hungry."
I texted him back and said, "what kind of food do you want?" he said anything would be great. So I told him I was going to Casper's Hot Dogs and I would get him hot dogs: "how many do you want? do you want Chips? a drink?" He said, "Oh that would be so great, I'll take as many hot dogs as I can have, BBQ chips and a sprite".
So, I went to Casper's got him three hot dogs, two bags of chips, a large sprite and $20 in Casper's gift certificates. He asked if we could meet in front of Sports Authority as he had his cart full of recycling and didn't want it to get stolen.
We pulled into the parking lot and out of the dark we saw this little flashlight beam coming from behind the store. J walked towards the front of the store, slowly pushing his bike, looking tired and cold. I was cautious as I got out of the car and said, "hot dog delivery!" He said, "Wow, Thank you so much! This is great!" I talked to him a little bit, inquiring where he was from, and then he disappeared back into the dark with his bag of hot dogs and this bike, pulling a little cart of recycling. It was an unsettling experience, but I was happy he was pleased with his dinner, and glad I could help.
Days went by and I thought about J often, so the day after our Christmas party I put together a big bag of food, including: sweet & sour meatballs, chicken, bread, snack mix, pastries, ham, turkey, roast beef and a bunch of other stuff. It was a cold morning so we thought we would try to find J and bring him a hot meal and some food.
I texted him in the morning and said, "Hi J, it's Dan, You want some hot breakfast and some other food?" He said, "is this the guy with the message in the bottle?" I replied, "yes" he said, "that would be great!"
We met him by the creek behind the Elephant Bar, bringing him a hot breakfast, some other food, a new sleeping bag and some clothes. He was so appreciative. He said he had been soaking wet and couldn't get dry, and that someone had stolen his bike, but that he was "OK". He went on to say, "I just need to get some recycling so I can pay my phone bill". His phone is his only connection to the real world. He was wearing wet old shoes that were a size too small but wasn't complaining. We talked with him a while and then left so he could eat. It was so sad and very hard to walk away from him that cold morning, to get into the warm truck and go on about our day.
We decided that we wanted to go get him some new weatherproof boots that actually fit him, some thick wool socks, and some warm weatherproof gloves to keep his hands and feet warm. We went shopping and I texted him back about an hour later and told him we had some boots for him and he was shocked. He said he has never had anyone help him like this and he was so excited. We met him later by a foot bridge where he visits another homeless friend as he wanted to share the food we packed for him. We gave him the boots, socks and gloves, talked for a bit and then left. By the time we got to the truck he had the boots on and was thrilled, waving and giving us the thumbs up. He called a while later and just kept saying, "thank you, you don't know what this means to me, I have never had new boots before, my hands will be warm now!" He said, "this is the best birthday for me. Thank you so, so much."
I heard from him again. He texted me and said he was having a hard time getting around without his bike and that his money ran out because he has to keep trying to dry his clothes in this wet weather. He said wanted to text me and let me know his phone was going to be shut off in a couple days because he couldn't make enough money to pay the bill. I told him to hang in there and things would get better. I asked him to please call me when his phone gets turned back on. He said he would. He texted goodbye and thank you for everything.
J has never asked me for anything. He has never begged for money from me, or asked for more than I have offered. He is polite and more appreciative than almost any person I've ever known.
He is 27 years old and going through a divorce, he has a child who lives with his ex-wife and that's why he tries to keep his cell phone. He's had a tough life and admits he's made some bad mistakes and takes responsibility for his mistakes. He makes no excuses.
He is truly down and out and I don't know if he'll ever make it off the streets at this point, but I keep encouraging him. I will help him when I can, and I will try to keep in touch with him to make sure he's OK.
I hope to find a good used bike for him before Christmas.
So when things get bad, think about J, and count your blessings. It's Christmastime, it's cold and wet. When it gets dark for J, there are no lights for him to turn on.
I think about him when I am eating at even the simplest restaurant, when I have a nice hot shower, when I see all the shoes in my closet, when I turn on my electric blanket to warm my bed. I think about him often.
This is just my story of a Message in a Bottle—a story that took a turn I never expected. It may end here, it may continue, but I thought I would share it with you all during this Holiday season.
Jones says that J has since been able to pay his phone bill and that they were able to find him a used bike. "He was just thrilled," said Jones. "His eyes lit up as he walked towards us and the bike. The bike was too small for him, it was old, but you never would have known it to see his face—he loved it". Jones also bought him a lock to help prevent the bike getting stolen.
"As he rode off on the bike he said, looking back, 'it works!'," described Jones. "He still keeps the message from the bottle with him in his backpack."
Editor's note: This article originally was published by Concord Patch in California.