A man with one leg holds a cardboard sign at the underpass on 5th Street. He looks the way I feel before coffee. Tired, haggard, cold. I pass him swiftly, watching a car swerve angrily to avoid his waving hand. I’ll come back this way, I resolve. Right now, I am almost late and I am not caffeinated, and I know I have a meeting this morning. The light changes, I cross the street, and the thought leaves my mind.
When I see him again on my way home, I stop. I pull out whatever cash is in my wallet and approach him with a too-bright “HI” because I am awkward. The light changes next to us as I walk up, and he seems to ignore me. An interval in the onslaught of traffic allows him time to limp into the street and gather a tiny gray mass from the asphalt– a wadded-up dollar bill. The truck driver standing in the far lane threw it out the window before the light went green. The man walks back to me, cars coming toward him, seeming almost to graze his heels as he crosses the street.
I look him in the eyes and say, “You’re brave.”
Then I offer him the dollar from my wallet.
“Thank you,” he says, and it’s the sincerity and the kindness in his tone that get to me. No one is around, just cars flashing by, and I am alone and small and female. And these points are reason enough for many men with more to lose to leer or stare or make me uncomfortable just for walking by, let alone speaking. Why are the people who have every opportunity and reason to be gruff or creepy always the nicest?
I tell him “Happy holidays” and look back at his sign only once before I walk on.
Help me get home for X-mas
As I walk, I think about him. He must be lonely, standing on that corner all day, every day. Was my dollar worth his while? Should I have stayed and talked to him? I wonder where he is trying to go. I wonder how long he has been here. I wonder if it’s a scam; everyone always seems to use that excuse.
“They’ll just spend it on drugs.”
“They don’t really need bus fare; they just want money.”
Always “they.” But who are “we” to judge? And mustn’t their need be greater than ours, if they wander city streets to collect the spare change that lines other people’s pockets? Because they are not a they; they are us. We are them, minus desperation. What must they be going through? What would make you do what they do?
I think about the man as I unlock my front door and ascend the stairs to my apartment. I think about him as I go gift-shopping and run errands and walk along South Street in the rain. I think about his hat and his coat. I think about his smile. I think about his sign, and the too-big-too-small lettering painted across the torn cardboard. Where will he spend Christmas, if he can’t get home? Do people feel like they have slipped through society’s cracks? Do they feel forgotten?
Help me get home…
Thinking makes me feel lost. Guilty. Because I am warm at night with my haunting thoughts, and he is not. I don’t know how to feel when life is heavy and unfair. Many days, I don’t know if I like this city, if it has been kind enough to make me stay. Selfish. I wonder if the man blames the city for his problems. I wonder if he would be better off anywhere else. I wonder if there’s a place where I’d be better off, too.
When I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in the dark of my living room window, I think about the man’s eyes and how I could see myself just barely reflected in the irises — in the surface, I saw my face and the concrete world behind me, and both looked grey.
Help me get home.
Help me get home.