first published in Furtive Dalliance
Footfalls quicken behind me. I feel a sharp pain in my back. A jolt reverberates through my body and my knees buckle, and excited hands rifle my pockets for my wallet and keys. I hear laughter, the doors of my car slam and tires squeal as the car speeds away.
Face down, I feel a chill run down my body. My breathing has become ragged and the light around me begins to dim. I’m now aware of an ooze that’s seeping across my chest. I’m bleeding out.
In the ER a team of zealous professionals works fervently to reverse what hospital personnel call the golden hour, the period of time when the organs of the body begin to shut down, and nothing known to medical science, however vigorously attempted, can stop the process.
Though my heart’s become arrhythmic, my mind is keen to race to the day’s beginning as I try to imagine what could have led to this unexpected scene in my life.
Sunrise spawns recollections of a delta morning: commands of an insistent rooster, a mule team at work, and the hum of insects rising from the mists of the great river nearby. The aroma of ham biscuits from Mannie’s kitchen and the feel of funky, fresh-tilled loam between my toes linger long in my memory. And the spent face of a school marm who’s resigned herself to the notion that spelling is at best an elective here.
This is home. Where vast areas of black silt reign supreme and enrich those destined by birth to hold title until the end of time. Unwashed spirits soar unchecked only to fade into a black abyss of abject failure. No matter what is said; no matter what is done. The indelible hues of the surrounding landscape foster an atmosphere where character matters little.
Poverty, no stranger, manifests itself in vacant eyes, hopeless dreams, and cries for crusts of cornbread that vanished long before sundown. A precious few, like me, managed to escape, leaving those remaining to taste the harsh realities of an unforgiving land. Luck haunts me still as does the unsolved mystery of untold wealth that’s swept over my soul toward the end of life’s journey.
* * * * *
“Good morning, sir. What’ll you have today?” she says with a smile.
“Well, let’s see, Rosa,” I say and scan the offerings highlighted above the counter. “How about a breakfast burrito and a large soda.”
Rosa is a pert eighteen-year-old with dark eyes and hair, and like all here, bilingual. Has to be. Laborers from the south who work construction for cash in the shade, are apt to be challenged by the complexities of our language. Thus, they frequent low-cost eateries such as this one where their tongue is welcomed and understood.
“That’ll be two dollars and twenty cents, sir,” she says.
Once the transaction is complete, I drop coins in a charity box on the counter and make my way to a corner table and open my The Wall Street Journal.
Years ago, I made an investment in this chain just before its fortunes began to dawn on the heavyweights such as hedge funds and other institutions on The Street. Following seven splits in the stock, I sold all I had on the hunch that a corporate decision to expand into a breakfast menu would become an albatross to the company. It didn’t. The firm continued to prosper. For years. Since then I’ve made it a rule to dine here every morning to remind myself that the market humbles all players regardless of street smarts or finesse.
A few minutes later my ticket number is called, and a tray of food awaits me at the counter. I see a gaunt figure shuffle in, his face lined and ruddy, his eyes deep set. And before he speaks to the counter staff, I’m confident I know what he’ll order.
Although he is hungry, he’ll ask for a senior coffee. Because of a chill in the air, he wants to tarry here as long as possible. If he uses his coins for a breakfast sandwich, he’s expected to consume it and leave. If he orders coffee, he can sit in the warmth of the restaurant and sip slowly, biding his time.
Once he’s ordered his coffee he peers down to count out his change from a sock he’s pulled from his pocket. Rosa’s eyes cut toward mine. I nod. He’ll receive a breakfast sandwich with his coffee, gratis. And likely he’ll not ask if it’s a mistake or why it’s on his tray. Rosa knows to say nothing.
When I retrieve my tray on the far end of the counter, I leave enough there to cover his additional offering. Rosa will soon claim it and complete the transaction. Slowly he moves to a vacant table across the room and waits for his number to be called. And with my tray in hand, I return to my table and my newspaper.
Why I do what I do is, I suppose, a reflection of my heritage. And no attempt at personal recognition is to be made. Otherwise, he’s cornered into a practiced litany all street people learn: “God bless you, sir,” or “Oh, thank you so much,” verbiage accepted by the giver as gratitude, yet it is a deep-seated humiliation these souls no longer wish to acknowledge. Nor should they be required to, I remind myself. Most don’t know why they’re victims of present circumstances and, at this point, a rational understanding would do little to alleviate the hurts they are burdened to carry.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him at the counter eyeing his sandwich and coffee. Rosa has her back to him as she makes a fresh pot of coffee. He returns to his table, sits, and studies his fare.
His clothes, his complexion, and his face tell a story of common history. Thousands like him haunt niches under highway viaducts, shadowed nooks in city parks and make-do shacks along the stream beds of the greater Los Angeles area, a state of being few understand and fewer still wish to consider.
Before he leaves he’ll ask the counter personnel to press a button and unlock the restroom. He’s now a paying customer; he’s entitled. And there in a wash basin, he’ll perform his simple morning ablutions and be on his way.
I hear my name shouted from the entranceway. “Yo, Frank.”
It’s Ed and Betty, a retired fireman and his wife, who come here each morning and sit with other retirees who’ll arrive shortly. I’ve encouraged Ed to share stories of harrowing encounters at major conflagrations during his career, but he’s a modest man. He blushes and just says, “I did my job.”
When we first met, he picked up on my southern accent and said so. And I know he’d like to ask me why my ancestors inflicted such horrific wrongs on his. But he doesn’t. He’s a gentleman and seems to accept me as a new generation.
“H’lo, Betty, Yo, dude, Great to see you,” I say.
They both wave and laugh. I’d love to share with him the reality of a foundation my colleagues and I created to grant scholarships to deserving kids from the ghettos of Los Angeles, young people who’d otherwise never grace to halls of any college campus. But I know better. Though he’d never call it to my attention, it’d appear to be a vain attempt on my part to whitewash the sins of my forebears against his, something I know I could never atone for no matter what I say or do.
An hour slips by as I peruse the paper and mull over potential strategies in the marketplace. My current investment profile is laden with market risks and one I know those of my vintage should never undertake. C’est la vie I tell myself.
On my way out, I stop to exchange pleasantries with my friends who’ve been hard at work debating national issues we are confident we have little or no power to influence. Yet in the interest of diversion, we take it upon ourselves to hash over a myriad of lame possibilities.
My morning errands take me first to the post office where I espy a skeletal figure with crazed eyes in the middle of the driveway. She steps to one side and allows me to pass and park. When I emerge from my car, I find we are face-to-face.
“Will you help me?” she says with a scratchy voice. I’m stunned by her aged appearance and compelled to guess this to be an uncommon posture for this woman.
“What do you need?” I say anticipating a reply unlike the many lines I’ve come to expect on the street.
“I need twenty-six dollars for a bed at a homeless mission tonight.”
In my many years as a volunteer, I’ve never heard of a mission that charged indigents anything. And twenty-six dollars? Perhaps the sleek indulgence I allow myself to drive these days has spurred her to increase the size of her request.
“Where is this mission?” I say.
She looks left and right before speaking as if this were a stage aside. “It’s on the corner of Arrow and Grove”.
Although that’s a few miles from here, I know the area well. A neighborhood market sits on the corner and a gas station flanks another. Perhaps there’s a budget motel nearby I’ve yet to notice, and since the temperature is expected to plunge tonight, it’s possible she just wants a bed with some privacy. Who could blame her?
“Tell you what,” I say, “once I drop off this letter in the post office I’ll drive you there and pay for your stay.”
Her brow furrows and she looks around. “There’s a bus stop across the street,” she says and points. “I can take the bus and save you the trouble.
“No trouble,” I say, “I’m going that way.” That’s a stretch of the truth, but now I’m more than a little curious about her dilemma.
She frowns and looks at her laceless sneakers, her nose dripping. She’s unconsciously wringing her hands and no doubt wondering what to say next.
“You think about it,” I say. “I’ll be back in a jif and we can ride down to the mission together.”
With a quick about-face, I skip up the steps into the post office. A minute later I’m on my way out, and my cell phone rings. It’s my broker in New York.
“John, may I call you back?” I say.
She’s talking with another driver who’s shaking his head. I move toward my car and realize she sees me but is not following.
As I back out of the parking space and roll down the window, I see a dejected look.
“You aren’t going to help me, are you?” she says glassy-eyed.
“Well, I’m not placing twenty-six dollars in your hands, but I will deliver you to your destination, pay for your room, and bring you back here if you wish.”
She stares at the pavement by her feet and shakes her head.
My gears shift into drive and the car moves toward the exit. I’m torn. But I’m acutely aware of how quickly meth can destroy individuals before they have any idea what is happening. My heart sinks. She’s the oldest victim I’ve seen and soon to be no more than a statistic.
Next on my list is a thrift shop in an industrial sprawl on the fringe of town. Bereft of visible reasons for pride, and hardly a mecca for those with money seeking quality bargains, it suits those on the edge who shop here. And the meager profits it produces for faith-based entities bring me here time-to-time to volunteer sweeping floors and arranging counters as well as adding to the coffers of the store whenever special needs appear.
The gravel lots surrounding the store are strewn with glass shards, used needles, and condoms, as well as soiled diapers tossed into the hedges. Outsiders who don’t know this area should avoid it or at least keep a keen eye on their possessions. Tarrying here after dark is unthinkable.
Today I hope to make a minor purchase for a friend. And close to the front door, I find another denizen of the street assessing new arrivals.
“Sir, could you spare a dollar, so I can get a taco down the street?”
The price is right, and evidently, she knows there’s a taco stand two blocks away.
“Don’t you know this is not a great place to ask for money?” I say with a smile.
She has no idea why I’d foist this mild admonishment on her, and her look becomes distraught. “I’m so sorry to be a bother to you, sir,” she says.
Humiliated by my own words, I hand her a dollar. What I wished to convey was the simple fact that people who frequent thrift shops are watching every penny. But my attempt at humor has failed. I should have known better.
“God bless you, kind sir,” she says.
I nod and enter the store, but something about her bothers me. Sharing with the destitute appeals, but I’m loath to support pushers and convenience store operators who profit from selling fortified alcohol to the unsuspecting on the street. Somehow, I feel taken, but I’m not at all sure why.
Making my way through the mid-morning crowd, I find the small appliance aisle and see the space heater I wish to purchase for someone I know who needs it.
Moving toward the cash register I realize there are ten customers ahead of me, and I’m eager to see if that homeless woman is still outside peddling her story. Has she by chance walked down the street toward the taco hut? My guess is no.
I stroll around to the employee side of the counter and place the appliance on a lower shelf. The cashiers know me as a volunteer so I’m not violating store policy by doing this.
“I’ll be back to pay for this shortly,” I say to one of the cashiers.
“Sure thing, Frank,” she says.
The woman is no longer in the lot. I jump in my car and head south toward the taco stand. Why I’m doing this I cannot say. I’m confident I won’t see her. A taco at 10:30 A.M.? What a fool I am.
But I’m mistaken. A block away I see her shambling down the sidewalk toward the eatery. I’d stop and give her a lift if it was safe, but traffic is heavy. I drive into the dirt parking lot of the eatery and wait for her.
Other surprises include a line already forming this early and the aroma of what’s cooking in the tiny kitchen of the place. Business appears to be good at all hours. And from the menu over the order window, the prices appear to be consistent with the assets of the trade in line.
Up the street I see her trudge up to the corner and stop at the traffic light. She’s clutching a tote as if it holds priceless valuables. Still oblivious to my presence, she crosses the street and heads for the line.
In my car I wait until she’s one person away from placing her order, and, at that moment, I move to her side. Now aware of me, she looks startled. Perhaps she thinks I’m here to demand my dollar back.
“Your lunch is on me today,” I say softly to assure her this is between the two of us. She nods.
When her turn comes, she leans into the window and orders in Spanish. Though my understanding of the language is meager at best, I do understand the cashier had been told I will pay for the meal.
He looks up at me. “That will be eleven dollars and fifty cents.”
I glance up at the menu again to assure myself this is more than the cost of any meal here. My face colors, I’ve just been scammed. But rather than say anything I give him a twenty and avoid confrontation. He hands me my change and I look down at the small woman whose eyes are wide with innocence.
I force a smile and say, “Enjoy your lunch”.
“Gracias,” she says.
On the way back to the thrift store to retrieve my small appliance, I wonder who just took advantage of me: the woman? The cashier? Both of them? No matter, I try to sweep the idea out of my mind as a trifle.
Once I have my purchase in hand, I return to my car. My cell phone rings. My broker.
“Sorry, John, I neglected to call you back,” I say. “What’s up?”
“Bitcoin,” he says. He has standing instructions to update me each time it crosses a new milestone.
The intent of my initial purchase was to park assets in a new currency, one expected to be stable and static. Yet the price increased. So, on a lark, I bought more. It continued to rise, and I continued to buy in what people in the investment business call pyramiding. And I continued to buy until I had a major position in the currency. That was a year ago.
“Has it broken ten thousand?” I say.
“Eleven. It broke through ten around mid-morning. Seems to be a mad scramble to buy it now.” He sighs. “Shall we continue to watch it, Frank?”
“Sell it, John,” I say.
The magic words I heard were “mad scramble”. Long ago I learned that if a wise investor found himself in the midst of a crowd, figuratively speaking, he could be assured he was in the wrong place.
“All of it?” he says.
“All of it,” I say.
“I’ll get back to you,” he says and clicks off.
I lean against the side of the car, cross my arms, and try to imagine the numbers of zeros that will appear on the cash line of my statement on settlement day. Slightly dizzy I shake my head and peer out toward the street and see the woman I encountered earlier coming up the sidewalk. In addition to her tote, she maintains a tight grip on another sack, her treasures from the taco shack.
And then it dawns on me, I wasn’t cheated after all. She realized she could purchase something for her lunch, something to eat after sundown, and maybe a bit for breakfast tomorrow.
She’s far enough away she cannot see me standing in the shade by my car. Behind me I can hear voices approaching from the alleyway, but I’m too enthralled with the homeless woman to turn around. My eyes aren’t what they once were, but I sense a smile and her tiny feet moving with verve toward destinations anew. And I wonder if our recent encounter has become a measure of success in her day.
* * * * *
Immense fatigue grips my body now, and I can feel the beats of my heart slow as my mind attempts to focus on the young males now joyriding in my car and counting out new-found cash for a grand night on the town. And to a small woman who peers down into her sack and calculates the time and place for her next repast. And a homeless man whose eyes dart about the café to see if another nameless benefactor may appear. And years ago, a bare foot boy running behind an old man and a mule on a bright delta morning, carefree, full of life and anxious to explore new worlds of adventure unfolding before his eyes.