An Ode to Mr. Jones

Yesterday morning, I spent two hours with a Chinese Rheumatologist whose English was passable if not fluent; at the very least, what she lacked in fluency she made up for in enthusiasm. You learn quickly in medical school that rheumatology is (one of) the unloved medical specialities. Consequently, every rheumatologist takes it upon herself to convince you rheumatology is fascinating, subtle, and difficult–most doctors, however, disagree. Having now acknowledge this, I fully realize some twist of fate will probably make me a rheumatologist years down the road.

This post, however, is not about rheumatology.

I only brought my class up because, about half way through, one of my classmates skulked into the lab room, sat down at a table across from me, and put his head down in his arms. The enthusiastic Chinese rheumatologist asked him a couple of questions during class but his only response was to barely raise his head and mutter something about not knowing the answer. His eyes were sunken and his face gaunt, his skin, though dark, was pale.

The day before that, I almost walked into a lady who stood motionless behind her shopping cart at the Fresh Grocer. She had her arms crossed atop the back of her cart and her head lay limp on her arms, as if she did not have enough strength to move her legs of straighten her neck. I walked by her, paused, turned around and was going to ask if she was ok, but by that time she had lifted her head and was walking down the isle, apparently well enough to keep moving.

People like these make me think of Maynard Dixon’s Forgotten Man paintings. If you have not seen them, the BYU art department actually has one hanging in the art gallery (by what coup, I do not know). The painting depicts a man, head bowed, seated on a curb. While he stares toward the street, crowds of by-passers do exactly that. Despite a flurry of pant-legs and shoes and even including the man who is the center of the piece, no face is visible in the painting. It is as if the crowd, by ignoring the forgotten man, rob both him and themselves of their humanity. Without compassion, everyone involved withers into a kind of faceless phantom–no countenance, no name, no identity, just a flurry of hurrying and rush.

Whenever I see that painting, whenever I face people like those I have met over the past few days, I am reminded of Mr. Folds’ “Mr. Jones, Part 2:”

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He’s cleared all his things and put them in boxes–
things that remind him life has been good.
Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper,
a man’s here to take him dowstairs.
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.

There was no party, there were no songs,
Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started.
No one is left here who knows his first name
and life barrels on like a runaway train.
And the passengers change but don’t change anything–
you get off someone else can get on.
And I’m sorry Mr. Jones, it’s time.

Streetlight shines through the shades
casting lines on the floor and lines on his face–
he reflects on the day.

Fred gets his paints out and goes to the basement
projecting some slides onto a plain white canvas
and traces it, fills in the spaces,
turns off the slides but it doesn’t look right.
And all of these [people] have taken his place
he’s forgotten but not yet gone.

And I’m sorry Mr. Jones, it’s time.

Mr. Folds’ song makes me melancholy because it reminds me how many people, despite lives filled with effort and desire, are left languishing is the gutters of the world. Some stay there only a few moments, but some seem to dwell there forever. It’s hard to imagine a sadder scene than the one portrayed in the song (reminiscent, in its way, of Willy Loman’s firing): a lifelong newspaperman finishes his career not to song and celebration, not to odes and farewells, but to nothing. He is merely replaced. In the end, it seems he was meaningless.

The disturbing part, of course, is that the world’s forgotten men are only forgotten because we choose to forget. They are only forgotten because I–foolish, embarrassed, and sheepish–refuse to pay attention, care, or help. Caught up in the forward motion of my life, I at times rush by and fail to turn to face those who are languishing in the gutter. In the end, it takes so little to change the painting. If you have seen it, imagine the difference it would make if one of those passers-by turned, showed his face, and extended a hand to the faceless man who stares down toward the street–imagine.

Sometimes I imagine and then wonder if I can do the same for someone, somewhere, today. Indeed, I was surprised once to note that, as I walked through the BYU art gallery I was confronted first by The Forgotten Man and then, in the next room, by Christ Healing the Man at Bethesda. Here was another forgotten man, a leper–hidden, actually, beneath a tarp. But here also was the Savior, as He always does to every forgotten one, lifting the cloth extending his man, and healing the one left alone by the rest of us. While I cannot reach everyone, and while I cannot heal like the Savior, for someone today perhaps I can remember and in remembering restore his face, his name, and his hope.

Published in: on August 3, 2006 at 11:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

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