An elderly man sitting on the curb this morning as I walk into town. The air around him heavy with metabolized alcohol and, more distantly, rancid human waste. “Can you help me get something to eat?” he says. A cloth sack in one hand, a tiny American flag in the other.
“Sure,” I say. I always say that when somebody asks for food. “Where would you like to go?”
“The bus station.”
“The bus station,” I say. “They have food there?” I ride the bus from time to time and haven’t noticed anybody selling food to the patrons. Not that I’ve ever looked.
“Yes, sir,” he says. So we set off for the bus station, less than half a block away. “I need to catch the bus to get to my job,” he says.
Doubtful, I think. This man belongs in a hospital. “I’ll get you a day pass,” I say. I never give money.
“What that?” he asks. “You can ride all day with it,” I tell him.
“You a blessin’!” he says. And then he says it again. And again. And again. Oh Lord, I think, is he wigging out? He says it at least a dozen times in the two minutes it takes us to get where we’re going. Half-way there, he holds up the flag. “Look at that,” he says. “I found it.”
“Yes, we’ve taken very good care of you, haven’t we?” I think, but I say nothing. We’re at the station.
I invite him to lead the way to the food, still not convinced there is any. Around a corner he goes, a new spring in his step. It’s a familiar route for him, obviously. “Here it is,” he says, and sure enough. Vending machines.
He points to a slot inside one of them. A pimento cheese sandwich gleaming between two slices of impossibly white bread. Jesus, I think, I’d have bought you a real breakfast if you’d asked, but I take out the money anyway. It’s his digestive system, after all.
The money slot is being uncooperative. “I don’t think it likes my dollar bills,” I say.
“Here you go,” he says. He’s indicating a change machine farther along. This is his kitchen, I think, and I’m helping him open the refrigerator door. Was he here earlier staring at that same sandwich, hoping somebody like me would happen by? Does he start every day like this?
He takes the sandwich. “You a blessin’,” he says, to me or to the sandwich, I’m not sure which. He waits with the sandwich unopened while I get a day pass. Then I violate protocol. I give him the $2.50 in quarters left over from our spending spree. I don’t know why. “You a blessin’!” he says again. Definitely to me this time.
“Take care of yourself,” I say. I pat him on the shoulder and walk away.
And since we’re both thinking it, dear reader, I’ll say it for us. Without a doubt, he’ll use the pass to ride inside an air-conditioned bus all day and at one stop or other, he’ll use the quarters to buy a beer. I’m not his friend or his benefactor. He’s fallen so far through the cracks that, to people like me, he’s just a speck in the distance.
The blessing he talked about, the real blessing, eludes me. I don’t even know where to begin looking for it. But I do appreciate his kind words. Unworthy of them as I am. Because just between the two of us, and I think you’ll know what I mean when I say this, I hope he dies soon.
Can you think of a better solution?