I'd been walking, stopping off deliberately in the deli next to the Evil Empire coffee shop to buy a cup of coffee.
I'm defiant that way.
He was sitting on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, reading Trout Fishing in America, a book I've not seen in, well, forever. Richard Brautigan gave me one of my favourite sayings in my verbal world..."I'm up shit creek without a pair of snowshoes". I felt compelled to talk to someone who was reading Brautigan.
It wasn't just the book, it was the luggage, the blanket on his legs, and the sign that said, "STRANDED IN NEW YORK CITY. PLEASE HELP!"
"Why are you stranded?" I gave him the cup of cocoa I'd gone back inside the deli to buy and I sat next to him on the cold sidewalk, offering a cigarette.
He looked startled as I settled in, taking the cocoa, gratefully lighting up. It was cold Saturday, crisp in the city, dry though, the drizzly air contained to Staten Island when I'd left hours earlier to make the audition.
"Ummm, well, me and my girlfriend, we came here and things aren't working out. She went back to our place in Ohio 'cause we could only afford one bus ticket, so, she took it and we found out we'd been evicted from our apartment there. So, she came back here. Now, we're on the streets."
"Have you gone to the shelters?"
"Yes, we sleep there. Problem is, you can't get a job without a license to drive and and all that stuff.", he continued, sipping and accepting donations into his cup.
"Why New York? It's pretty miserable here in the winter."
He went on to tell me how they'd met in high school, dropped out together to see the country. His eyes never stopped checking out the crowd as he spoke. He said they had hitchhiked and panhandled over the width of the U.S., making it to 35 states. He knew the number because she collected little pins and put them on her coat.
He said he'd been to Bryce Canyon, and he was in a little town near there, and he loved it, they almost stayed, but, they knew no panhandling would be allowed. I laughed, and told him I had a house in that same town.
He looked so cold, you could see some warmth returning to his skin from the drink. His mouth was ringed with cold sores, and his hands were chapped... and it's still early in the season... Mommode kicked in, hard. I was starting to think of leaving him my gloves, my last $5.00.
He asked me the time, said he'd be leaving soon, to go to get his girlfriend.
He worries about her. She has a temper, and gets into fights with people. If they say the wrong thing, she'll "... be in their face. I can't have her picked up again. She is small, but, she can punch hard. It's never her fault, though. People just pick on her, you know, say the wrong thing and she has to defend herself."
She was on another corner, near Central Park. They didn't panhandle together, they made more money this way, split up.
He worries until he sees her at their appointed time and place.
"We try and get to the shelters early, get a bed next to each other. I go to the Apple store and check my email, send letters to my mom, let her know I'm okay and shit."
I asked if he'd gone to craigslist, looked for gigs there... told him he didn't need to have a license, that you can find occasional jobs doing labour.
He said he'd not thought of that.. and his eyes drifted to make contact with people walking, shaking the cup.
As he talked, telling me of what they'd done while traveling, how they'd gone from city to city, with no real destination, settling on New York because of the free stuff they could score, the medicine, the housing, the hands dropping money in his cup... that this was a good place for them.
"So, you really aren't stranded."
"No, not really. We can really score here in New York, you know."
I stood up.
"Yeah," he said, warming to his subject, "I don't like having change. At the end of the day, I put what I make into bills, then I dump the leftover change into cups of, you know, the 'real' poor people. I share what I make."
He smiled up at me, as if I should pat his head.
I walked away, glad I was only out a cup of cocoa. I guess everyone has a profession, I have joked that panhandlers are a union gig, and it's a tough union to join.
I think I met the local steward.... who went back to his book, and looking pathetic, and holding up a sign that was a lie. He did this, and I walked away, angry I'd been snookered. Angry I struggle at times, the same way my friends do, and this...this... faker and his anger issue girlfriend more than likely make more money than I do.
Still, was he any more dishonest than sales clerks who say you look great in that fushia skirt in order to make a commission sale or the hucksters who push a fake designer bag on you? Or a President who says we need this war? Was he what he was made to be by his background, or something of his own creation?
All of this rolled in my head, while I walked from 23rd down 6th, looking for bus stops, not paying attention that the traffic was going the opposite way from me, moving uptown as I walked downtown, feeling the air grow colder as the sun dropped down behind the urban mountain range I live in now, listening to the call of the wild tourist as it sang out "Which way is it to South Ferry?" and for once, not giving directions the way I usually do ("Take the 'R' to Whitehall... the station is just there across the street"), ignoring, as always, the pedestrian signs on the street, making my way down to the old stomping grounds by the Soho Grand, only pausing to talk to Josh at the front door, and coming to the realisation I needed to go to Broadway to find my bus.
I was still pondering it all, the decision to be a bum, to let society take care of them, to happily be sickly looking in the hope people like me would help him out, relying on the fact we would do just that, when I went past someone collecting for the Homeless in New York, and I gave them my $5.00.
The bus arrived, I climbed on, and found out my all powerful MTA card didn't work on the 1X bus, it's not all powerful on an Express bus, it seems. A nice driver, however, overrides that, and I was given a free ride back home.
I guess we all get free rides of one sort or another. Leaning back in my seat, opening In Cold Blood, looking out over the water as we drove over the Verrazzano Bridge, I had to ask myself...
Am I any different, or, because I was better dressed, do I think a free bus ride is a small thing in the big picture?
With that in place, who am I to judge him?