so leaving working today i walked down 47th street to the MAX stop. on the bench was a girl dressed rather like an elf with stripy pants and a long purple hat and a mark funkhouser button ("Vote for FUNK"); a plastic bag; the owner of the bag, a homeless man whom i have seen around midtown, old, warmly dressed, scruffy medium length beard, otherwise unremarkable. standing a little apart by the trashcan was a black lady wearing a black veil.
i looked at the schedule and noted that the next bus would be along at half past three, in half an hour, and judged that i should simply sit down. i settled by the homeless man and contemplated the ground. a penny glittered there. the man rummaged his pockets and slowly shifted things around, eventually setting aside a used bus pass. he leaned over and scooped up the penny and put it away, murmured to himself, and fell silent. we sat there a few minutes, and then the elf-girl, whom i’ve seen on the max several times before, got up and went away quickly.
after a minute the man lit a cigarette, puffed a few times, then said to me, ‘how cold was it? how cold do you think it is today, boss?’
well,’ said i, ‘ i think it’s about 25 degrees.’ (i found, later, that i overstimated by about seven degrees, but it was an honest estimate.)
‘ah,’ said the man, satisfied.’i thought it was warmer today. ‘but last night was a bitch.’
‘yes,’ i agreed, not having any notion of how bad it probably was.
‘buddy of mine,’ said, ‘we spent the night together. we kept all right. i’ve got,’ he went on, ‘a good kit. i’ve got a korean war sleeping bag, rated to 20 below, and another sleeping bag, and a blanket. what you do is, you lay the thickest thing you’ve got down, and put your other bag on that, and lay the blanket over you: that way the concrete doesn’t bite you in the ass.’ he laughed. ‘don’t tell anyone,’ he chuckled, but i have another blanket, a baby blanket i wrap around my feet.’
i smiled.‘yeah,’ i said, nodding. ‘layers is the way to go.’
‘my buddy and me, we lay next to each other, then this old girl, she’s bipolar, crazier than hell, came, and she was freezing, so we let her in with us.’ he chuckled again. ‘i lay between the two of them and i kept pretty warm. it was a three-dog night.’
‘i’ve been thinking,’ i said. ‘it’s been cold for a while. i wondered what its been like.’
‘yeah,’ he said. ‘we’ve done okay.’ he nodded slowly. ‘i heard on a weather forecast once,’ he went on, ‘about how the earth’s pole shifts around every five thousand years, back and forth, like seventeen degrees. it was once by thule in greenland, and now its more in canada. the cold goes with it, and so kansas city’s gonna have new england winters.’
‘yeah, it’ll be hard living here,’ he said. ‘like detroit’
‘i hope not,’ i said, noncommittal. ‘it’s been cold too long now. i hope it’s over soon.’
‘yeah,’ he said. ‘but i guess i won’t have but a few more years before i have to check out.' he grinned and laughed. ‘i’m pretty old. after that,’ he paused. ‘well, there’s three ways i can see it going. there’s your judeo-christian way, where you stand and are judged. then there’s your asian way, where you are born and born again until you get it right.’ he smiled at me. ‘well, there’s the third way, where you just fall asleep and never wake up. not ever.’
‘yeah. i don’t like the first way. i don’t like the idea of somebody judging me. and i sure don’t want to have to be born and live this again. i like the idea of sleeping.’
‘yeah, that’s the way to go.’
‘i like to sleep. i hate waking up. i hate waking up and having to face reality.’
i said something inane in agreement, like i’d know what having to face reality meant. i thought about bonnie laying there asleep in the morning, not wanting to wake up. i thought of him sleeping, really not wanting to wake up.
‘i just want to sleep,’ he said, ‘forever. never have to wake up.’ he smiled, and i nodded and smiled back.
he nodded a moment more. ‘think i may go around to jack stack barbecue in a while. see what i can get. they’ve got a good barbecue baked beans, and mashed potatoes with garlic and cheddar cheese.’ he smiled and laughed. ‘good food. used to be fiorella’s,’ he said, and named an adress i forget but which is doubtless correct. ‘their daughter went to school with my half sister to notre dame de sion.’
i looked at him, trying to shave away and beard and peel away the clothes and put another life like a suit on him. i failed: my lack of faith, for which i feel ashamed.
‘used to go over, see the manager, the guys at the bar. got to be real good friends.’
after a moment he asked, ‘do you like donuts?’
‘as a matter of fact i do.’
‘i was just at sunfresh,’ he said. ‘they had some great donuts, shaped like valentine’s hearts.’ he picked up the plastic bag that had been sitting there. ‘here, have one.’
‘thank you, i sad, accepting the bag. it was a marsh’s sunfresh bag.
‘i just pulled that one apart,’ he said, perhaps fearing i might be squeamish. ‘i didn’t bite it off.’
‘oh, that’s all right,’ i said, opening the plastic clamshell in the bag. it was sticky, and there were printed paper towels folded neatly on top.. i selected the pastry next to the half-eaten one and began to thoughtfully eat it while he kept talking. he’d been hit by a car last summer, and ever since bad balance because of his leg. he’d had trouble walking on the ice.
‘yeah, i hate walking on this ice too,’ i said.
i lost the train of his thought for a moment, then he came to a decision. ‘need to go to work,’ he went on matter-of-factly. ‘got to make some money.’ he rummaged in his bag for a moment, then said to himself, ‘where’s my sign?’ he rummaged, then said, ‘damn, lost my sign.’ he sounded a little crestfallen.
in my pocket was a sharpie i’d walked out of work with. ‘here,’ i said. ‘i’ve got a new pen, it’s a good one. get some cardboard, and you’ll be set.’
‘why thank you, young man,’ he said. he seemed positively energized, and waved off towards the art institute. ‘i’ll go get some cardboard, and make a new sign.’ he heaved to his feet, and pulled on his bags and packs.
‘don’t forget your donuts,’ i said.
‘no, no, you keep them.’
‘thank you,’ i said.
‘thank you, ‘ he replied. ‘thanks!’
‘you’re welcome. good bye,’ i said.
he half-strode, half hobbled away. i finished the donut. by the time i had licked it off my fingers, and as i began to wonder what in the world i would do with the rest of them, another man came quickly up the sidewalk. also homeless, a little crazier looking, carrying a snow shovel and a snow shovel blade. he looked at the schedule, and then went back to the trash can, leaning his shovel and spare blade against it. he eyed me, then the black woman, seemed to make a choice, and drew a deep breath.
‘do you know about the 1260 year-cycle in the bible?’ he cried out at her.
‘i beg your pardon?’ she eeped, sounding like hooks in the police academy movies. ‘the 1260 year cycle in the bible. the hebrew calendar had 360 days,’ and he began rattling off chapter and verse.
‘you mean like in ephesians,’ she mumbled, ‘ where you shall remember ye being in past Gentiles . . . and what was will be again.’
‘i don’t kow,’ he shouted. ‘lots of good things in ephesians, one and two,’ and he raced through more verses. ‘ but the point is there’s a 1260 year cycle, 670 BC the babylonian captivity,’ race and gabble, ‘and 560 AD the catholic church contaminated primitive christianity,’ on and on like a jack chick tract now, ‘and then 1260 years later in 1830 the greek state was declared independant returning Holy Greece to the mother church,’ on and on breathlessly, ‘proving the 1260 year cycle. Praise the Lord!’
she murmured something, and made a noise. i thought at first she was laughing. ‘Praise the Lord!’ the crazy man said. now i knew she want laughing, but crying, sobbing. ‘are you all right?’ i can’t understand you,’ he said as she repeated something.
i failed to hear her either, hiding behind he rveil, but i thought she was saying, ‘why did they do it to him? why did they do it?’ i thought she was referring to the crucifixtion.
‘well, that’s the 1260 year cycle. praise the lord!’
at this time he fell silent, as a tall, thin lanky man looking not little like Lurch from the Addams Family, but far thinner. i knew him from sight too, from the bus. he loomed over us, faintly swaiyng, as the black woman wept and then shovel man looked intently 1260 years away at nothing. shortly thereafter another homeles sman, a black man now, with a bundle and an empty, heedless in thought and pace stumbled along and took his place amongst us. finally the elf-girl straggled back from what ever errand she had been on and began idly brushing melting ice from the bus shelter with a gloved finger. i wanted badly to say to her, ‘you have no idea what you’ve been missing,’ but i knew that there’d be no explaining. quickly the bus drew up, and we all of us piled on, wild-eyed shovel man, sniffling religious hysteric, duffle-man with a moon-like face, spindly giant, elf-girl, and me. the bus, of course, was packed, and had that atmosphere of tension and insanity the metro often exudes. i grabbed a rail and pondered matters while riding to brookside. by the time i had reached 62nd street i had begun to question my own sanity and got out with the homeless duffle man, still carrying my bag of hobo donuts. i had an errand at constantino’s groceries, and walked up the hill still wrapped in my own thoughts.
if i hoped to find normality i was disappointed, for i found that everything was just as insane there. the stepford wives with little girls in catholic shool outfits, grocery boys in white shirt and tie, older white men hastily choosing flowers and candy (as i myself did): all of these seemed a part of a weird world i could not penetrate or understand, as alien as the world of the homeless. i hung trapped in the center, unable to move from one or their other or to understand either. a woman pushed a cart, her little boy hanging off it. she chided him for something. i smiled at her, and passed by into the canned vegetable aisle, thinking, lady, you have no idea what i’ve seen and done in the last hour, as i still carried, brushing by her arm, a bag of food given me to a homeless man.
only after i walked out of the store and headed home, into the silence of the snow and cold sunlight, did i feel as if i had reached some point of balance and sanity.
and i said to myself, ‘what in the hell was all of that?’
in the book a canticle for leibowitz a scholar calls the men of his time brutes and asks a priest to comment on what the priest sees in them. says the priest angrily, ’i see the image of christ.’ if ever i received the Host i received it from that old man on a bus stop. i had received charity and mercy from those that i would have thought below me. i had seen the well-to-do and proud clearly, as they were. it was sobering.
i knew what to do with the donuts. i put them by the composter for the possum and the squirrels: to throw them away would have been sacrilege, and i cannot stress that enough; as far as i was concerned it was the body and blood. as charity passed to me, so it would pass on to the weaker and more helpless than myself. what else would Francis of Assisi have done?