I am not alone. I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He is really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance and our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (you can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).
No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950’s.
And I remind myself that someday, if my cards play me right, I will enjoy a real meal around a table, and experience all that I’ve been missing during these efficient years of isolation. I will clear the table and clean the dishes, I will sit on the couch and take a crack at the crossword, or catch a made-for-TV movie, or go run errands or consult a book of baby names for the offspring on the way, and eventually I will work on improving my bad habits and attempt to overlook my wife’s inadequacies (the quirks that were so endearing in those early days). I will, at last, learn to communicate openly and as an adult. Mostly, I will not be alone.
My dog is a trooper.
He’s never called in sick a single day of his life: up at the crack of dawn every day, including weekends, stretched, eager, and anxious to take on the world. Or at least take a walk.
My dog takes his work very seriously, and has succeeded in making more friends than I have. He does not discriminate: men, women, cars, trees, and other dogs—especially other dogs. He wants to meet everyone, and he patrols the neighborhood like it’s his job. I, for one, admire his dedication.
Thanks to him, I am on a first-name basis with all the other dogs in my building, though I have a hard time remembering what to call their owners.
Take this guy: an older man (I don’t want to call him an old man), whose name I’ve never gotten around to establishing. I sort of prefer it that way, as he provides me with a mystery I enjoy embellishing. Where most of my neighbors are obviously what they are: mothers, fathers, bachelors, wives, working stiffs, senior citizens, anonymous law-abiding entities, et cetera, this man alone retains, for me and my imagination, an enigmatic air. He wears a wedding band, but I’ve never seen or met his spouse. He is friendly, so much so that it initially took me a while to warm up to him.
Maybe this is the way other people saw my old man. Yes, he is definitely someone’s father: he has rolled up his sleeves to punish, praise, clean, counsel, inspire, admonish, argue, approve, second-guess, support and silence. In short, things I have never done. And I think (I can’t help myself): he is a way I’ll never be.
All of us, of course, are more or less the same: we live, we work, we sleep, we eat, we love, we fight, we forget, we try to remember, we think, we break down and then we die. In this regard, all living creatures are more alike than not.
But humans are different.
We know who we are, so we wonder (we can’t help ourselves) things like: What has that man done that I’ll never do? What has he seen that I’ll never see? What parts of the world he once lived in are gone forever, replaced by newer things that younger people, not yet born, will wonder about, in time?
If I had lived in the ‘50’s, that man might have been a spy, a professor, a pedophile (I would have called him a pervert), a recluse, a con artist—but above all, he most certainly would be a Communist.
If I had lived in the 50’s, I would eat an egg for breakfast each morning with either bacon or sausage or sometimes both, I would also eat pastrami sandwiches, drink whole milk and smoke endless streams of cigarettes, I would be father to as many children as God (most certainly a Capitalist God) saw fit to provide, I would live closer to my parents, I would miss church service seldom on Sundays and never on Holy Days of Obligation, I would know how to fix my toilet and sink if they dripped, I would never have had a shirt professionally pressed, I would drive an American car and never wear a seat belt, I would have a job that I could actually describe in one or two words. I would be, quite conceivably, content.
My dog is content. One thing is for sure: if my dog lived in the ‘50’s, he would be content, just as he would be content fifty years from now. After all, all dogs want is other dogs (I think my dog thinks I’m a dog). People aren’t like that, which, I suppose is why people love dogs. The older man and I love our dogs, and for a few seconds we watch them sniff each other.
“Hot enough for ya?”
“Yeah well, it’s the humidity!”
(To ourselves we say this).
Then we go our separate ways, exchanging pleasantries.
I say: Have a nice day.
Likewise, he replies, then smiles. Not to mention a nice life.
I smile, then walk away, still smiling. Who the hell does this guy think he is, saying something like that? How dare he say something like that. Unless he means it. No one says something like that. Unless they are actually, inconceivably content.
I’m still smiling, but then a sobering thought sideswipes me (again): That man is a way I’ll never be.
There is a man who sits near the pumps at the gas station I drive by to and from work each day. He is very obviously from somewhere else and has that certain look—the meek, awestruck eyes, the apprehensive gestures that indict him as someone who speaks little, if any, English—a stranger.
He remains respectfully distant from the customers who incessantly fill their tanks, like bees returning to the nest before heeding the urgency of their instinctual obligations—but near enough to the action to remain in plain view. He sells flowers. Actually, he doesn’t seem to sell anything, he pretty much sits there, on an upturned milk crate, often from early morning until well into the evening, after the rest of the weary warriors have commuted past him, home from work and their worries of the wicked world. He silently, stoically plies his wares, content to play his part in the charade: he is not accomplishing much, he is begging, and the milk crate and collection of fading flowers at his feet communicate his inexpressible anguish. Please help me, his unscrubbed face, his unlaced sneakers, his oversized slacks, his filthy, fidgeting fingers—everything but his voice—all ask, saying what he cannot, and will not, say for himself.
Once you reach the age where you want to begin lying about how old you are (signified when you start losing the hair on your head and find it turning up in places it has no business being, like your back, your shoulders, your ears and especially your nose) you want to slow down, avoid the wreckage that is ruining everyone around you.
You spend your formative years cultivating your own unique set of issues and get to a certain age (some people actually become adults) where you realize you have issues, and they are the only things you own that no one else wants. Then you work toward eradicating your issues, and the strongest amongst us survive and eventually some of them make money sitting there, listening to people (who are paying them) talk about their issues. Then, inevitably, sitting around and listening to people talk about their issues helps them develop an accelerated, more complicated set of issues.
No one gets out of here unscathed, and you may think you’ve got life beat, but it waits, then sucker punches you in sudden death overtime.
Take this guy, for instance.
Laying low at the stoplight, I have no choice but to get a load of this specimen strolling down the sidewalk, a big shit-eating grin stretched across his face. Immediately, instinctively, I roll up the window.
“What a shame,” (to myself I say this).
What kind of sick-ass world are we living in when the sight of some happy-go-lucky son of a bitch, some idiot who actually seems to be enjoying life, arouses a feeling of fear?
And yet. It’s always the smiling psycho who slips out a sawed-off shotgun in the supermarket, or takes a hostage at the playground. It’s never the guy grimacing in line behind you; it’s never the sketchy character with the five o’clock shadow and fedora that shoots up the 7-Eleven—those faces only exist in films. Besides, no one smiles when they’re walking down the street, not in real life, not these days. Anyone who does is already living in the future; beaming at visions of the bomb they just detonated, causing a twenty-car pile up on the freeway. Or else they are smirking in silent acknowledgment of the helpful voices in their head admonishing them to be ever vigilant for anal-probing aliens, or eavesdropping federal agents, or the guy in my car looking at them with envy in his eyes. No, it’s infinitely more refreshing, and routine, to observe a stranger, swearing and scowling his way down the street. That’s a person you can trust, a person hiding no secrets, a person ensconced in the painful prison of the here-and-now.
I’m listening to the old woman again.
This is another part of my daily routine: every time I enter the building after walking my dog, or if I’m stopping to get the mail, or anytime I am anywhere between my front door and the main entrance, this woman (I have no other option but to say she is an old woman) whose name I of course cannot remember, appears like a mosquito at a campfire.
She is there every time—every time—if I’m walking out (I’ve learned not to step out of my door in only my boxer shorts) to throw my trash down the chute, she’s there; if I am coming or going to work, she’s there; if I open my door (I’ve learned not to open my door without my boxer shorts on) to get the newspaper, she’s there; and especially if I’m returning with rapidly cooling carry-out food, she’s there.
I had half-seriously begun to consider whether or not she had rigged my door to some sort of honing device, and then I slowly started to notice, over time, it isn’t just me (of course it isn’t just me)—it’s even worse than that. It’s everyone, it’s anyone: anyone she can see or talk to, anyone she can make that human touch with, however fleetingly, any excuse she can find to escape the oppression of her immaculate isolation.
Bang: another day ends with a whimper. Cooked on the surface but still raw inside, it’s all in a daze work as I drive home through disorienting yet familiar streets. Survival suburban-style; a metropolis in transition, trying its best to live up to the image it was designed to imitate—sprung from the minds of forward-thinking people who are trying to recreate the past. On the corner high school punks stand beside a phone booth, making no calls; a quick right turn and I’m feeling the money dread as I cruise past several blocks of four car families. Being outside the city is safer, particularly if you prefer the sound of crickets to cop sirens. Eventually, I arrive somewhere in the middle ground of this middlebrow town, and for lack of any other options, I am relieved.
And yet. This is supposed to happen later, with wife and kids and a basement to be banished to after hours. I’ll deal with that later. I think.
My front door is the one mystery to which I have the key, but for some reason I still feel as though I’m sneaking up on a stranger every time I return from a dishonest day’s work; I’m not sure who I expect to see, who might be hiding from me, who possibly could have found the way into my modest refuge from friends and memories.
With Pavlovian precision, I make my way to the medicine cabinet and pour myself a bracing plug of bourbon. If this were a movie (I think, mostly in the past, but even today), I would grab my crystal decanter, filled with obviously expensive spirits, and administer that potion the old-fashioned way, needing no ice cubes, especially since I would never get around to drinking it, as it’s only a prop, a cliché. No one reaches for that tumbler these days (except in movies); the question is: did they ever? Even in the ‘50’s? Or has it always been part of the script?
I still have hangovers, thank God.
Everyone who has known an alcoholic knows that as soon as you stop feeling the pain, it’s because you are no longer feeling the pain; you are no longer feeling much of anything.
So, I welcome the horrors of the digital cock crowing in my ear at an uncalled for hour, and am grateful for the flaming phlegm in my throat, the snakes chasing their tails through my sinuses, the smoke stuck behind my eyelids, the shards of glass in my gut, and the special ring of hell circling my head. Because if it weren’t for those handful of my least favorite things, I’d know I had some serious problems.
All of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his balls, then up and out the door before sunrise, like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it’s a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it is, whatever it takes, they always make it out, and they always come back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.
Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50’s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had a long way to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out. This was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives.
It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.
Daydream notion. Sitting on the porch on a Sunday afternoon. Too early to start drinking, too late to stop myself from the too many drinks I had last night, and wondering things like: how seriously should one consider the expiration date on a jar of mayonnaise?
Hung over. Overhung. Hung out to dry heave. Name it, if it’s bad, that’s me.
Inhaling fast food (obviously), wondering how much my liver will let me push it around before it stands up and says I’m not going to take this anymore! It’s too hard to think and eat, so I concentrate on the food, trying not to acknowledge how incredibly awful this crap is (bad for me, bad for the environment, bad for the people who make minimum wage selling it, bad for the people who make less than minimum wage manufacturing it, and especially bad for the miserable animals whose synthetic lives are sacrificed so that we can do all these bad things).
Every time I eat fast food it’s like having sex with an old girlfriend. I’ll start to think about it: lustfully, then obsessively, then violently. I need to have it, and when I’m finally enjoying it there is nothing better, nothing else in the wretched world exists while I’m getting it on, getting it in me, devoting every iota of my being into the dirty enterprise. Eventually, inevitably, it ends, and the second it’s over those intolerable feelings of guilt begin. The sloth, the lack of control, the sickening pangs of self-loathing. Et cetera. And I promise myself never to do it again. Then the whole room reeks of what just went down, and it hangs in the air, imploding like an enraged cloud until, in my defiant fashion, I get hungry again and the smell starts to distract me until I can’t take it, and I need more. Immediately.
Later: it’s late, we’re alive, and I suddenly wish I were alone.
It was as good for her (I hope) as it was for me, and after, we lie down in darkness, with no choice but to talk since neither of us happens to smoke.
Tell me about it, I say.
Tell you what? She asks.
What’s your story? I ask.
I got laid off, she says.
Shitcanned? I ask.
No, downsized, she says.
Everyone gets downsized, I say.
They do these days, she says.
Unless you’re lucky, I say.
You’ve been lucky so far, she says.
Yes, that’s why I’m so miserable, I say.
Tell me about it, she says.
Now get a load of this guy.
My neighbor, whose name I’ve of course forgotten—if in fact I ever knew it in the first place—(and, being roughly my age, never objects to and always answers my irrefutably cordial salutations which include chief, dude, bro, and the ever appropriate and all purpose man) is standing outside my door: I can see him through the peep hole.
While I wonder if I should wait to see if he’ll knock again, he knocks again. It’s eight-thirty in the morning, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
“Hey man,” he says, embarrassed or anxious. Or both (at least he doesn’t remember my name either).
“What’s up my man?” I say, not missing a beat.
“Listen, sorry to bother you…you on your way to work?”
“Yeah, actually…why, is everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah, listen, do you mind if I come inside for a second?”
I back up obligingly, resigned to roll with it. What choice is there? After all, I did open the door.
He corners me in my kitchen and asks if I know anyone who might be interested in buying a condo. His condo, for instance.
“I’m sure there are plenty of people who would love to live here,” I offer.
“Yeah, I know, but…I mean, do you know anyone who’s looking to buy a place?”
“I’d be happy to ask around, you know, put the word on the street and whatnot…”
“Yeah, that’d be cool, I’d appreciate that.”
He looks away and it’s my turn to say something.
‘Yeah, well, I got laid off, you know? So I’m just gonna move home for a while, with my folks. You know, ‘til I get my shit straight.”
“I hear you,” I say as encouragingly as possible, but it’s only half true. I do hear him, but I also hear myself (saying I hear you) as well as the voice inside my head, which is processing this situation and repeating the verdict: Not good, not good, not good.
He is sweating, his hands—which seem puffy and pale, I’ve never noticed what unbelievable meat hooks he has, though admittedly, the only times I bump into him are in the hallway as he disappears into his end unit with a case of Miller Lite cans under one arm, McDonalds or some other fast food monstrosity in the other—his hands, exhibits A and B, are shaking like the lid on a boiling pot, they are very obviously not obeying their master, and before I have half a chance to put two and two together he interrupts my internal assessment and looks at me searchingly.
“Hey, uh, you got any beer?”
At eight thirty-three in the A.M., there is only one possible answer to a question like this: “Sure,” I say.
I open the refrigerator and remember: I drank my last beer last night, which makes me a liar.
“Actually, I don’t,” I start, but sense that will not suffice, so I hold the door open and let him inspect for himself, which he does, making us both feel better—or worse—depending on how you look at it. He accepts this answer, but is clearly not satisfied with my response.
“Oh. I have plenty of liquor, if…”
“Yeah, do you care if I take a shot of something?”
Are you sure you’re okay? (To myself I say this).
A pint glass is obviously inappropriate, so I grab a juice glass and put it down on the counter, sliding it over to him like a bartender from a black and white western. He has eagerly grabbed my fifth of Jack Daniels and I tell him to help himself.
He pours a generous, bordering on unbelievable, belt of my booze and inhales it in one febrile motion. This is strictly business (to myself I say this).
“Better?” I inquire, and actually mean it, I actually want to know.
“Uh…do you mind if I get another one?”
“Hey bro, knock yourself out,” I say. Stupidly.
He doesn’t notice because he’s too busy securing the second round in case I try and give last call at the last second. Even the sweat on his forehead seems relieved. Although I know exactly what time it is, I can’t help myself from looking up at the digits blinking on my oven: 8:34.
He looks at me and nods his head, expressing gratitude with his burning eyes. The eyes never lie. Then he snatches a tube of toothpaste out of his front pocket, puts it in his mouth and pulls the trigger.
“So, you wouldn’t mind asking around, you know, just see if anyone is looking to maybe live here…I’ll cut a deal…”
“No problem,” I assure him.
“…I’ll hook you up with a finder’s fee too…”
“Oh don’t worry about that man, I’m happy to help.”
Not good, not good, not good.
“Let me give you a card,” he says, putting the toothpaste back and reaching into his other pocket. I’m surprised, in spite of myself, that between the shaking and the sheer size of his hands he can even fit them into his shirtsleeves.
“Fuck,” he says, frazzled or furious. Or both.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“I left my fucking cards in my place…”
“Well don’t worry about it, let me just write your number down and…”
“No, let me run and get them, and you can hand them out and shit…”
After a few painful minutes pass, I go down to get them myself.
On the way, I think: Gambling debts? Drugs? Or both?
Drugs, it must be drugs.
Whatever it is, it’s something I know I want no part of. It’s obviously something my neighbor wants no part of either, or we wouldn’t both be here right now.
I knock on the door.
It opens, quickly, and my neighbor walks out, shutting it behind him. Apparently I’m not supposed to see inside. Perhaps I don’t want to see inside.
He follows me into the hall.
“Hey man, I appreciate anything you can do.”
“No problem dude, I’m happy to help…”
“Listen,” he leans in close. “Do you mind if I grab another shot?”
“Sure thing bro.”
I’ve already locked my door on the way out, so I let myself back in, tricking my dog into thinking a full day has already passed.
The bottle and glass are still on the counter, forming sticky circles of an early morning crime scene.
“Do you mind if I pour a stiff one?”
“Help yourself chief.”
You want to take the bottle with you? (To myself I say this).
He pours a shot that would give Liberty Valance pause, polishes it off, and then pulls out the toothpaste from his holster.
I ask no questions, he tells no tales.
I tell my dog to hold down the fort (again) and my dog looks confused or disappointed. Or both. I lock the door (again) and escort my soon-to-be-ex-neighbor out.
“Thanks again,” he says, then looks at me meaningfully. “I appreciate it.”
“Okay man, take care of yourself.”
“Give me a call if you hear anything.”
Both of us seem to understand, as we go our separate ways, that we’ll never see each other again, and we are each somewhat deflated, probably for opposite reasons.
On the way to work I have a memory that’s more like a dream: Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, or exceptionally appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless, in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.
When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than eight) my father and I had a layover in Newark airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.
An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.
“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”
“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.
The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy sense that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.
As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as I was apt to do, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as he was apt to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.
It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories, that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.
I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often when we look at them and see ourselves.
If I had lived in the 50’s, I would have taken a real job right out of college, or I may not have gone to college. I would have had to start earning a living to support my family: married at twenty-two, a father within the year. That’s just the way it would have been.
Maybe I’d like my job; maybe I would be content. Maybe I would consume so many steaks and cigarettes and whiskey sours that nothing could touch me—I would be obese, an impenetrable fortress of flesh, and no pain could get past me.
Or maybe I would work and eat and smoke myself into a muddled mess and punch the clock prematurely—another casualty of the Cold War. Maybe I would be smart enough to have left my family something, and maybe my wife would remarry and live off the fat of my labor and I wouldn’t begrudge her because I was in a better place, drinking Bloody Marys on the great golf course in the sky.
Or maybe my wife, being of her time, would not wish to remarry and instead focus her energies on the grandchildren and church functions and the increasingly mundane exigencies of old age. Maybe she would want to meet another man but her prospects would be poor—after all, she was married to a big slob who she somehow stayed devoted to and still mourned. Plus, there were always the kids to contend with. Used goods are used goods, whether you’re talking cars, real estate or relationships.
Maybe she would solider on, alone, oblivious to the insanity of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, indifferent to the surreal psychosis of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and grow into her shrinking body the way a spider’s nest settles into a windowsill.
Maybe she would eventually understand that the family home—the house in which she lost her virginity, raised her children, cleaned a thousand rooms, cooked a million meals—had outlasted her, and embrace the inevitable.
Maybe, in the end, she would be a lot like the woman across the hall. She’s had a good life (please allow her to have been happy: in my mind if not in actual fact). She, at least, once had a husband, and maybe a son and daughter that she dotes on and who love her dearly, but they live so far away and are so busy with work and kids and life and time just slips away and so it goes.
Or maybe it is even worse than that: maybe she was never married, never found exactly what she was looking for, or the right ones overlooked her until it was too late. Maybe she was cursed with the blessing of being always apart, in all the important ways, from the utterly average, anonymous faces she came into contact with day in and day out, and like almost no one else she knew, she was unaware of it.
I want to walk out my door, but I can’t.
And this time, for once, it’s not because I don’t want to, it’s because I’m desperately certain that she won’t be out there waiting for me.
Running out of gas.
My car needs fuel too, and as I pull into the station, sure enough my man is out there, like the sun setting in the west. Out there, always, in the heat and the rain and mostly in the ceaseless, crushing boredom. Out there every day, very likely taking away a lot less than some street-corner wino stuck in any second-rate American city.
As I pump manifest destiny into my machine, I can feel the stranger behind me, screaming his same silent song. And then, finally: enough is enough. I turn around, but he is not looking at me. He is sitting on his milk crate, clocking the traffic, reluctant to make eye contact even with the cars. He says nothing, sees nothing, but surely hears everything. How can he not, when it’s all there, right in front of his defeated face? And it occurs to me, I’ve never once seen a single person buy a flower or even acknowledge him.
What can you do?
“Hey man, I’ll take one of those flowers, I’ll take all of them…”
The stranger looks at me suspiciously and shakes his head. He has not understood a word I’ve spoken.
“Listen, I’ll buy all of them…”
I pull out my wallet and start speaking the language everyone understands.
I keep giving and he keeps taking. I don’t count and he doesn’t complain.
Finally, I’ve done all I can do, and he smiles. He says a lot of things, suddenly, with those grateful eyes. I need to leave before he tells me any other things I probably should hear.
I almost make it to my car and then, before I can stop myself, I turn around to tell him a thing or two with my own eyes.
He’s gone: the man, the milk crate, even the flowers I was just holding in my hands. A mirage? Maybe a miracle. Now it’s only me and an endless stream of traffic, blowing by in both directions.
“Have a nice day,” I call out, to whomever might be listening.
Not to mention a nice life.
To myself, I say this.