The bum at the river

Monica Nilsson spreads Jesus' ashes near the river. Credit:

We just buried a bum at the river. Well, those who knew him would never call him that. In fact, he was a barge cleaner, stadium worker and newspaper delivery man named Jesus. He was also the most alone man I have ever met.

Jesus, Chicano-American and a product of the foster care system, often said he understood the term “throw away” for kids. He said he was one of them. 

“That’s OK,” he would say earnestly. “I never needed anyone; I just needed to work.” 

By age 59, he had worked many jobs. Though you might see him at the river, you wouldn’t see him working. He was one story below sea level, sweeping the belly of a barge or sweeping up popcorn after everybody had gone home from a Twins or Vikings game. Through much of his life, he had a home. But during 17 years of it, when he lost work and had no one to turn to, he lived in the woods by the river. He said his friends were black and white, the skunks and raccoons. He kept his camp tidy with military precision. He knew that some people who passed the river road called him a bum.

“Why work when they can live off the government?” some would say. Or, “Go get a job,” not realizing that the man retreating into the bushes had just delivered the newspaper on their doorstep. Often “the homeless” are listed alongside litter, graffiti and bus fumes as “things” to be changed.

Then the words that no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.” At first, Jesus refused care. He was about to lose his apartment and return to the river. He spent several months outside, living with cancer, but could feel the change in his body.

When he knew he couldn’t deny it anymore, he did what is hard for many independent, hard working men to do, he took help. He worked with St. Stephen’s Human Services to find a place to call home. 

He got an apartment but didn’t have a bed. He began a lay-away plan to buy a bed and when he had paid it off, he knew he could rest post-chemotherapy, so then began treatment. He never took the plastic off the new mattresses. 

“Give my bed to one of your other people when I’m gone,” he said. 

He kept shoveling the walk at his building until he couldn’t anymore. He needed to be working. Only in his last months of life did he accept Social Security disability benefits. When the paperwork came, 20 pages of employment history were attached. Jesus even paid out the remainder of his lease, November through March, from his disability income. He was very proud to have done that. And when the time came for hospice, he told the staff at Our Lady of Peace, “No one will visit me. I have no one.” 

But a few people did come: homeless advocates, friends from the street. In his last outing from hospice, he went to Rosedale and spent all his money on board and card games. He never opened them. He donated them for others. Perhaps he hoped people would have the joy of companionship while playing together. In his last photo taken, he lined up his three pairs of boots next to him. “Send Red Wing a photo and tell them their boots are real durable, like me.”

When Jesus died, we buried him where we thought best, at the river. Usually, when a man or woman who is homeless dies, someone claims him or her. Very few go unclaimed. And, of course, obituaries and funerals cost money, so people in the deepest poverty do not have the same end of life recognition as those with means or family. 

Counties will pay for preparation of a body and Jesus went into the river 100 percent environmentally friendly, the same way he lived next to it. Even the most alone person I’ve ever met wasn’t. Four homeless advocates, two friends and one hospice worker gathered at the river with flowers, a happy face balloon and cups to bury him by spreading his ashes in the wind and water. Whether by fate or divine order, that American symbol of a solitary creature, the bald eagle, flew over us in the sky — not alone but a group of them.

What did I learn from Jesus? Rise above the people who think you’re a problem, not realizing you’re their neighbor. When people say you choose to live the way you do, say yes, given my options.  And when there’s a better option, I’ll take it, just like anybody would. And next time someone says, what about those bums at the river? Ask if you can tell them about a man named Jesus.

Monica Nilsson is an advocate for children, teens, their parents and single adults who are at risk of losing their home or are now homeless. Contact her for conversation at St Stephen’s Human Services — mnilsson@ststephensmpls.org.