Shoppers flocking to Tysons Corner Mall this holiday season might recently have noticed a sight that stands in sharp contrast to the newly renovated, stylish commercial Mecca. Under the bridge where Westpark Drive passes over Chain Bridge Road, just a stone's throw from the mall, sits a large bundle of bags and an old, blue bicycle that sports a cardboard sign bearing the simple entreaty, "NEED RIDE CANADA."
The owner of this humble collection of goods can often be seen sitting nearby, clad in a heavy, camouflage jacket, on a stool made from a bucket. He gave his name as Edward Herman Gay, but said he goes by "Buddy" and is on his way to Canada to attend bible college in order to become a minister.
And why in Canada? "The Holy Spirit is sending me there," he said through a wiry, reddish beard.
He has been an unofficial street minister for 22 years, he said, working primarily with addicts and alcoholics. "I tell them about the Bible and about AA and NA [Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous]," he said. "If I get one person to become a Christian or get sober, that whole year's work is worth it."
Buddy said his homelessness works to his advantage in this respect, as many addicts and alcoholics, particularly the homeless variety, may not trust a regular preacher. "My church is the church on the street," he said.
Twenty-two years ago, he said, when he graduated from a 10-month treatment program for his own alcoholism, "I made a commitment to Jesus, and I haven't had a drink since," he said. Instead, he began spreading the word about AA to other alcoholics, an act known as 12th-stepping in AA parlance.
He said he has talked to "a couple people" in the Tysons area, but his current location makes socializing difficult. "I can't do much here because traffic can't stop," he said, and reaching him on foot can be risky. He doesn't mind, though, because he is only passing through.
He was born in Reidsville, Ga., in 1953, he said, and in '71 he began a four-year stint in the Coast Guard. After that, he used his mate's license to become a merchant seaman and worked on tugboats around the Everglades.
In the last 22 years, Buddy has been all over the country and worked various jobs, he said.
Indeed, his Southern accent has been thinned to the point that it is only barely detectable.
TWO YEARS AGO he was in Nevada, having been on the West Coast for some time, but he took a bus back to Georgia around Christmastime and ended up staying for a year.
"I took a year off and stayed with my family," he said.
Since he began wandering again a year ago, he spent time in Florida, Alabama and the Carolinas before arriving in Virginia.
He prefers not to hitchhike. "I get robbed," he said. "I got two rides this year — from two ministers." Instead, he walks or rides a bike.
Lately, he has been riding his bike and pulling his bundle of possessions behind him on a hand dolly. When the weather is warm, though, he travels much lighter. "I didn't have much a month ago," he said. He protects what property he has now from the weather with the material from a few umbrellas sewn together.
Another thing he does not like to do is panhandle. Instead, he gets money by selling crosses he has made from Plexiglass, which he cuts into pieces, makes into patterns, glues with PVC cement and colors with nail polish.
In spite of his aversion to hitchhiking, he is now looking for a ride, and he is confident that he will get one. "I just put my hands up and ask," he said. "I put all my faith in Jesus Christ."
Meanwhile, it seems the local police have not bothered him much about seeking a ride or staying under the bridge.
"They just come around and see if I'm alright, because of the weather," he said. "They give me the number for the shelter. But I can't do my work in a shelter. I've got to do my work here."
And he, in turn, is as law-abiding as possible. "I don't leave any litter," he said. "Keep America beautiful."
When he leaves America, he will go to Montreal to apply for Canadian citizenship and then will apply for grants to go to bible college, he said. His acceptance into a school will mark the end of his street career.
Once he becomes a minister, "I'll put in for citizenship in China and preach the gospel there. The people are free now in China. They let them have religion there," he said, lighting a Winchester cigarillo.
"You don't go to hell for smoking," he pointed out. "You go to hell for lying, cheating and stealing." However, he said, he is confident that before he becomes a minister, Jesus will take away his smoking habit the way he removed his alcoholism.
As for the cold weather in Canada, "I'll be prepared for the winter up there. You've got to get ski clothes — insulated. I'll be getting some soon." The idea of blistering cold seems to be the least concern of this seasoned outdoorsman.
"I've got a new life ahead of me," he said.