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Yvonne Abraham

Redemption, and gratitude

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 25, 2009

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If I could, I’d like to be, a great big movie star...

Bobcat Smith stands in a dark apartment in a Roxbury housing development, arms outstretched, singing. Decades of bad decisions may have taken their toll on the rest of him, but his voice is still rich and sweet, like a Neville brother’s.

Overnight sensation, drive a big expensive car...

An elderly man, frail and thin, is sitting at a table, beaming.

“I wish I could get some of that at my church,’’ Willie Mitchell says. “They all sound like a bunch of cluckin’ ducks!’’

Bobcat, born Robert 58 years ago, spends his days knocking on doors like Mitchell’s. A stocky man who wears his baseball cap pulled low, he is a delivery driver for Community Servings, a Jamaica Plain nonprofit that sends almost 400,000 meals a year to poor, gravely ill people and their families from Brockton to Lawrence.

At Community Servings, food is medicine. The meals are beautiful enough to make very sick people want to eat, and authentic enough to remind them of a time when life wasn’t awful.

Behind every door is a world of pain. The people Bobcat calls on have HIV, kidney disease, cancer. Some of them are hooked up to oxygen tanks. Some are barely able to dress themselves. Some look far healthier than they are. Some are cheerful and grateful. Some are angry and broken. Some are desperate to talk. Some can barely manage a thank-you.

Every one of them reminds Bobcat of how far he has come. For 30 years he used heroin and cocaine, sharing needles, robbing people, leaping into countless situations that could have killed him. He spent 25 years in prison, on and off. When he got out in 1998, a lot of his friends were dead from the virus, or killed on the streets. He was done.

“I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired of doing the same thing and expecting different results,’’ he said. Community Servings took a chance on him, like it does on so many others who have made very big mistakes. Bobcat found a calling.

“I took from the community for so long,’’ he says, driving by the corner of Intervale Street and Blue Hill Avenue, where he first started using. “Now I can give back. It just made me feel good, when I went home at night, how I made people feel.’’

He also found a wife, Carolyn, the co-worker who trained him: “Married six years, and not a single fight. Ain’t that special?’’ He loves his job, but it’s not always easy. Sometimes, people are not very nice to him, and Bobcat reminds himself that they are suffering and that their bad days are worse than he can imagine.

Sometimes, they welcome him into their lives, and that can be hard, too. Bobcat visited a family in Revere for over a year, delivering meals to a nice woman whose husband was a baseball fanatic.

“I loved the way they made me feel when I brought their meals to them, the love and respect they gave me,’’ he said. “We got attached.’’ One day, he knocked on the door and the husband appeared, tears streaming down his face. His wife had died. “I cried with him for 45 minutes,’’ Bobcat says.

Bobcat will be out on the road again today, making special Thanksgiving deliveries, his bags heavy with roast turkey, herbed stuffing, and sugar-free pumpkin pie. He will chat with the people who seem to need it, and sing for the ones who will let him.

His clients will be thankful. But none of them will be as grateful as Bobcat.

Because, by some miracle, he gets to be the guy who knocks on a door, instead of the one who opens it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com