How he got to Key West or how long he had been there when I first saw him in 1972 no one seemed to know. He was just there every day, sometimes scuffling along the street, sometimes sitting on a bench, always staring aimlessly ahead. With name unknown, locals called him “Cocaine.” Some said it was because he had blown his mind on a cocaine overdose. Others said he was named that because his continual stupor mimicked a drugged state. Still others theorized that he was a Vietnam vet who came back home having seen too much on some forgotten battlefield. It was clear that somehow he had left reality behind, either by chance or by choice.
What is most memorable was his appearance. In the seven months I lived in Key West I never saw him anything but absolutely filthy. His hair and beard were matted, the only relief coming when Cocaine sat stoically through the afternoon rain storms. Occasionally he would appear with a brand new shirt. But as the days passed it would steadily turn dark until it was as black as the shirt it had replaced. He wore only one pair of pants that shone from the months of mingled dirt and sweat. A greasy film covered his skin. I tried to talk with him but he never answered, never looked up, never seemed to hear. I got close enough to know that the appearance had a host of unpleasant odors to match. He was the filthiest person I have ever seen.
If this followed the formula you would expect to have me tell you of his wonderful conversion. Except for the places he continues to haunt in my mind I have never seen or heard anything of what happened to Cocaine after I left Key West. For years I have been unable to understand what it was about him that made him like an unfinished sentence in my mind. It was only recently I began to understand.
I was raised in the arms of the Church first in a mainline denomination and then in the Army. By the grace of God I was never involved in any of the so-called “gross” sins, never wanted to drink or try drugs or live immorally. I was about as clean cut as they come. Kids I think would call me a geek or it equivalent. I don’t regret my choices because at the very least they spared my loved ones and me a great deal of heartache. But living that way can create a sense of “betterness” that masks the truth about our sinful condition.
The past few years I have thought more often about Cocaine, how dirty, how aimless, how pathetic. But suppose that every sin left a smudge on my skin, every unworthy thought and misguided intention left my clothes just a little bit dirtier? What if there were an offensive odor emitted by each self-centered action or my hair was matted just a little by each indulgence to pride? How much more would I resemble Cocaine than the Ivory soap image of a good, clean man? Suppose my sins demanded a clear expression to the world?
Under those circumstances I see myself, not Cocaine, wandering aimlessly through the streets, my tattered clothing the righteousness that Isaiah called “filthy rags.” I imagine that I would find this state would drive me from the clean homes of others to find a refuge in the alleyways, tucked behind some dumpster. That’s where my sin would leave me.
But coming into the alleyway, pushing aside the newspapers that serve as blankets is the great Savior who crossed the forbidden space between Himself and the lepers. Too weak to move and wanting desperately to stay with Him, I feel Him cradle my head as gently as does a mother her newborn. And then He bends over further still to gently place the kiss of Grace on my dirty cheek. With that, I am clean. Because when Grace touches sin the sin must flee away.
In reality there isn’t that much difference between Cocaine and me. Except for the kiss of Grace. Except for the kiss of Grace.