My only thought was to get him out of the building. I’m not a small person; I’d use force if I had to.
He slipped in on the heels of a high school group who had come to tour our school. I greeted the eager, young, college-bound kids, and just like that I was faced with a true stranger. A man probably experiencing some form of poverty and mental instability. A man who didn’t belong, who wasn’t supposed to be there.
He walked right up to me. He wore sweatpants cut off below the knee. And over the sweatpants, a ragged pair of camouflage shorts doctored to look and function like a makeshift tool belt, torn, dangling pockets bulging with items unseen.
He spoke. “Shanti, shanti, shanti – as-salamu alaykum, alaykum, alaykum – Shanti, Shanti – as-salamu-alaykum!” Peace. Peace be upon you.
In the moment, it didn’t register with me that he was offering words of tranquility. The situation was anything but tranquil.
We shared perhaps 10 seconds of pleasantries, but my hesitation about him didn’t fade. I told him my name was Eric. The front desk worker looked on, dialing a phone lifting it up to her ear. A nondescript call to campus safety.
“Eric the Red! A viking!” he said with enthusiasm. “No one knows my real name. But, I’ve had five names in the past. Five powerful names.” His eyes pierced me, bright blue with pupils rimmed by a subtle golden sunburst. He had a dark round circle on his right temple, maybe a birthmark or a coverup for some old tattoo on his face. Sprawling across his dry, cracked hands were black lines, serpentine permanent ink that twisted away beneath his long sleeves. His knuckles were bleeding, freshly sliced open.
He asked for the pen in my pocket, took out a business card, and began to scribble as he spoke with rapid-fire words.
“My first name began with a ‘J’ – John the Baptist, the messenger, and my second name began with a ‘J’ – Jesus Cristo…”
“My friend,” I interrupted. “It’s so beautiful outside. Do you mind if we enjoy the sunshine together while you tell me your names?”
He obliged without hesitation, and I made eyes with the desk worker. Relief.
As we left the building, he continued. “My third name was Muhammad,” he said. “The prophet. And, you’ll never guess my fourth name.”
“Joseph Smith?” I asked. I thought maybe I had his pattern down.
“No, no man – Eric Clapton! Clapton! He could wail. Eric – just like you. Eric the Red, but your beard is more brown than red. Nope. It’s not even red at all. It’s just brown. But you’re still Eric the Red. Eric the Red with the brown beard…”
By now, a campus safety officer had arrived, and my (to that point) four-named friend sensed his time was up. The officer was kind and gentle, encouraging John Jesus Muhammad Eric Clapton along. Before he left, though, I asked whether he needed anything.
“Yeah, man – I need a little more time with you. I have so much to say – 23rd floor, Triple – A, above Abraham’s attic, V. Edwin, my grandfather, who was scared of the letters of his name…I only live on the 23rd floor above Abraham’s attic. My grandfather left me because he was so scared of his name. ‘IT’S JUST ONE SIMPLE NAME’ I’d tell him, but he would never live above Abraham’s attic with me…”
“Hey, listen – I’d love to chat more, but I have to work. You understand, right?” Those piercing eyes met mine, and his bloody knuckles extended out. I offered my own, and after our fists met, he started walking away. He turned back and launched into a rap-poem-prayer of some kind. I turned to head back inside and teach, leaving the officer to watch alone.
I’ll likely never know his fifth name. John Jesus Muhammad Eric Clapton ________. Maybe Taylor Swift or Donald Trump or Cookie Monster. And if I meet him again, I suspect that he wouldn’t be able to relive or recall the moment we shared. It started with an alarm that had to be silenced, but once I understood him a bit, I knew he wasn’t someone to be afraid of. Perhaps just someone who wanted to be heard for a while.
And, perhaps, someone who in a sense was all those people.
John the Baptist – a messenger, calling me to patience, greater love, and reminding me that it’s not about me. Jesus, who came among us in an unexpected way and who got pushed out from time to time. Muhammad – a prophet, one who offers words that are hard to understand but hold great significance. And Eric Clapton – one who, when he does what he does, leaves people with a memory that doesn’t fade.
His real name will remain a mystery. And, I didn’t give him as much time as he wanted. But, his names revealed a deeper truth: he was just who he said he was.
The cover photo was taken by Jennifer Aguilar (an Arrupe College student). Check out her Instagram page.