I see him there, standing on the corner, with his brown skin gone leathery from too many years in the sun, indistinct brown features, muddy brown eyes peering forth from the cracks and crevices of a face gone hard from life and weather.
He stands there, rocking slightly, cardboard sign that’s nearly as limp and worn as he is, and suddenly I’m not in the air-conditioned driver’s seat of my new car, surrounded by the greasy-sweet aroma of fast food while I wait at a red light.
Suddenly I’m eight, and I’m staring down at the grizzled, unmoving form sprawled on the front lawn of our complex.
“Is he… okay?” I want to ask if he’s dead, but I’m scared to say the word. I’ve never seen dead, except on tv. I think that’s what dead looks like, but I’m not sure.
“Drunk. And selfish. He’s just passed out from drinking other people’s money,” my dad says, and then we’re walking past, and I’m left craning my neck over my shoulder to stare at the retreating, prone figure.
I eye the legs spread akimbo on the lush green of our condo’s lawn, the frazzled beard which hides his face, and I feel my stomach go clammy. What if he is dead? I can’t see him breathing. What if he is dead, right there, on my front lawn?
I swallow and step closer to my dad as my hand steals up of its own accord, finding comfort in the grip his large, calloused palm.
I come back to myself, and eye the never-ending red light. It’s a hot day – too hot – which is why I bought a soda. Normally I’m a water drinker, but hot days and Dr. Pepper go hand-in-hand, and I close my eyes in bliss as I take a sip. Why are fountain drinks so much better than the bottled ones you get at the gas station? Who knows? It tastes delicious, though, and my hand sneaks into the bag of its own accord, finding comfort in the feeling of being nearly-burned by the too-hot curly fries. I wanted to wait until I was on the freeway to eat, but it was Jack in the Box. I hadn’t eaten curly fries in almost two years. I mean, if you’re gonna be stupid and break the “no gluten” rule you’ve set for yourself, you might as well do it in a blaze of glory, right?
Out of the corner of my eye I see a flicker of movement, and I barely catch myself before I glance sideways. He is there, still standing. It’s not that I am trying to forget he exists, it’s just…. I never know where to put my eyes when I’m beside someone who is begging on the street.
Boy, if that’s not the definition of stupid, self-centered “First World Problems”, I don’t know what is.
I’m curious about him, and I want to look – to take a peek into the life I might have lived, had circumstances or any number of things been different – but I don’t want to look in his eyes, to feel that sizzle of connection as our gazes meet. I’m scared what I might find.
Besides, what if he feels hope? What if he thinks I’m looking at him because I’m going to give him money? Do I shake my head “no”? That seems…. that seems worse, somehow, than not even looking. I see my purse beside me, flipped open to reveal the last crumpled dollar bill from this week’s paycheck. I resist the urge to dart my gaze sideways again as I flip the purse closed, hiding it.
And then, even though nobody is watching me, or maybe it’s because, I drop my eyes to stare at my lap in guilt.
I hated beans. Hated them. Daddy loved them, and he felt like they were a treat, but they weren’t. They were boring, and gross, and even Ketchup couldn’t save them. We were going to go to the store when he got back from work, but Brandie and I had eaten the last of the cereal in the morning, and the only thing to eat other than beans was a jar of sweet pickles I’d found behind the mustard – well, that and an abandoned can of tuna that was probably older than me. I knew for a fact there wasn’t anything else, because I hadn’t even known about the tuna until I’d dragged a chair over to stand on so I could search the far corners of the empty shelves.
We weren’t poor – I knew we weren’t. Daddy just lived on a budget and was very strict about saving his money….. but it was hard not to feel poor when all you had to eat was beans.
“I’m hungry,” I whined. Again. It was hot – but then again, it was always hot in August. Garden Grove was too far from the beach for any breeze, and so landlocked it felt like you were trapped. The sidewalks caught the clean sun, trapped it, and tossed it back at you full of the stink of sweat and too-many-humans. “I’m huuuuungry.” I fully expected to be mocked, or told to be quiet. I mean, there were beans. And Ketchup. And a can of tuna. When no “hush” was forthcoming I looked up, confused, and instead of irritation I found sympathy in my older sister’s large brown eyes.
“Me too. Let’s see if we can find enough change to go to McDonald’s.”
My heart leapt within me. At 11 Brandie was the de facto parent while my dad was at work, so if she said we could, then we could. We scrounged throughout the entire house – under couch cushions, behind the bookcase that we’d wedged beneath the staircase, behind the toilet, under the sink…
You will never know the meaning of dedication until you have a chance to exchange beans for a McDonald’s hamburger. Just sayin’.
Somehow, we found enough, and the walk next door felt like a victory parade. I tripped along after my sister, balancing on the short brick wall that bordered the sidewalk, jumping down to run down the small grassy hill. I’m not sure what my dad was thinking. Who? Who purchases a condo built right next door to a McDonald’s and then tries to feed kids healthy food with the scent of hamburgers drifting in all day long? I felt like the Fruit Loops Toucan, floating along in ecstasy on beckoning airstreams of greasy fries. I could have found the door with my eyes closed.
The blast of air conditioning brought blissful goosebumps to my hot, sticky skin. We waited in line, fidgeting, scuffing our shoes on the cool linoleum. I was so overwhelmed by the scent, the anticipation, the sweet feeling of not being horribly hot that it took me a moment to realize it. We were standing next to one of them. Right next to one of them. I edged closer to Brandie. There were a lot of homeless in the area, and they all made me uncomfortable, with their scary beards and distant eyes and tendency to pass out on our condo’s front entrance way.
Brandie didn’t seem to notice him. Then again, she didn’t snap at me to quit touching her when I crowded her, so maybe she did.
“Big Mac – wait. Two big Macs, large coke, large fries, and three of those apple pie things.” He reached into a pocket and dropped a messy handful of change onto the counter to count out to pay. It slammed onto the counter with a resounding crash, crumbled dollar bills and quarters mingling together in a wrinkled mountain of wealth. How much was it? Five dollars? Twenty dollars? One hundred dollars? I stared, sullen, as one of the quarters rolled to a stop, bouncing off the edge of my shoe. I edged it away from me with a toe, following Brandie to the next register when it opened.
“One cheeseburger, and one small fries,” she said in her pretend-adult voice, carefully placing the small handful of pennies and nickles into the outstretched hands.
I watched the man receive his food and leave, and as soon as the door closed behind him I dashed over and picked up the abandoned quarter. I considered pocketing it, but brought it to Brandie instead.
She brightened, adding it to the pile of leftover change, and pushing it across the counter. “I would like to change my order please. One medium fry, instead of one small fry.”
I pop the curly fry into my mouth and chew. Thoughtfully. He’s looking the other way, having given up on this particular group of red lighters. There’s a jacket tied around his waist – an impossible blue against the uniformity of his earth tones he’s wearing. I wonder – do the clothes turn a uniform color from not being washed, or is it something he does on purpose? Is it chance or an actual uniform – maybe a deliberate camouflage? I’ve always wanted to know, but there doesn’t seem to be a polite way to ask. Besides, I’m not sure it’s any of my business.
I look at him, at his small backpack and the way his fingers are tight against the limp sign. I bet he makes his clothes less bright on purpose, so he doesn’t stand out at night. I doubt he wants anyone knowing where he sleeps. Sleeping is so…so vulnerable. It lays everyone low, makes us all defenseless to predators, whether they’re the four-legged or the two-legged kind.
F*CKINB*TCHC*NT! F**KING GONNA F**K YOU UP! GONNA TEAR YOUR EYES GONNA TEAR IT OFF GONNA TEAR YOU…
It went on. And on. He’d been at it for some time. Most of “the bums” in the area were regular as clockwork – Red Shirt Guy took the east corner, right off of Westminster Avenue. Crazy Eyes guy would take the opposite corner, on Brookhurst Street, but usually only in the evening.
I swear they had regular shifts. They’d show up, yawning, at the same time, nearly every day. Morning was for standing on the corner, with the cardboard signs. Over the years I’d watched them make the signs – grabbing cardboard from the dumpster behind McDonald’s, bending it with strong hands, scuffing it along the curb to make it more worn before writing their message on it. Homeless Vet. Please Help. Hungry.
The liquor store on the east corner would make their change for them, converting the crumpled bills and pocket change into larger bills. Fives and tens, and sometimes even twenties. Bad days would be only one trip. On a good day they’d make 3-4 trips in a day.
And in case you were curious – No. No, there wasn’t anything good on summer daytime television in the late 80/early 90s.
As far as I could tell, they mostly drank it. There wasn’t a lot of turnover in the population, and they seemed to sleep in the same place every night, with their brown-bagged bottles. If they were choosing to buy or do anything harder with it, it rarely showed.
“That’s it,” my dad said, punching the power button the tv with a sudden ferocity of movement. In two strides he was at the door, throwing it open so hard it slammed into the back of the kitchen table. Three more steps and he was through the yard, past the ridiculously short gate and on his way to the fence line, three doors down.
The homeless man on the other side of the fence was mid-tirade, howling out a slippery stream of rage as he’d been for nearly an hour. He seemed to go in fits and starts – quieting down just long enough to give us hope before launching into another skittering, frenetic river of cussing and anger and incoherent threats, slamming intermittently on the wooden fence that separated the condo from the alley.
The neighbors perked up as my dad strode past – eyeing the angry set of his shoulders, the crisp strides of a man on a mission from behind their drapes.
“I’M GONNA TEAR YOUR EYES, EYES, AND F****YOU F****CNT***”
WHAM! WHAMWHAMWHAM! My dad slammed his palm against the fence in quick succession. “SHUT UP. There’s families here. Get the hell out of here. Go somewhere else.”
“WHO THE F***” began Mr. Howl, and kicking the fence from his hidden retreat on the other side with such ferocity I watched the wood shudder.
WHAMWHAMWHAMWHAMWHAM! “KNOCK IT OFF.” The slam of my dad’s hand against the fence drowned out the sound, and the sudden silence from the other side had an almost shocked quality to it.
From the safety of staring at my lap I glance back at the man on the corner, through my lashes, trying to see him for who he is, who he isn’t, who he might be, and who I might have been if I’d been less lucky.
And suddenly, I’m so ashamed of myself and my avoidance I can feel it crawling over my skin. It’s french fries, Becky. It’s not the winning lotto ticket, or the cure for cancer, or the last doily your great-grandma knitted before she passed away. It’s just $2 worth of french fries, and an ice cream shake, and I’m hunched over it like I’ll lose it and never see it again.
Guilt prickles like acid, eating its way past the barriers I’ve erected to keep the world out, burning through to a hidden place where the only person who has the strength to hurt me is Me.
I roll down my window. “Hey,” I call.
Our eyes meet.
“I’ve got some lunch, if you want some…?”
I wait for him to approach before I hand it to him through my open window, feeling the waves of heat against my skin, the difference in temperature causing goosebumps to dot my forearms. I pass over out the brown bag full of fries, and then a smaller bag with the real ice-cream shake. Our hands touch, for a brief moment, a fleeting contact even more nebulous than the touch of our eyes.
“No prob,” I say, and I mean it.
And then because I’m me I ruin it by following up with, “Stay cool,” from the air-conditioned interior of my new car. I wince and wish I could retract it, to say something different, something more, but then the light is green and I’m through the intersection, and I’ve always sucked at small talk so there’s no sense hating myself now.
I merge on the freeway before I take a sip from the Dr. Pepper that stayed in my car. It stayed because to give him the drink was to give him my lunch – and I wasn’t giving my lunch away, I was sharing it. It seemed important to me, that distinction – a difference that resonates in my head and my heart in a way which helps me see clearly. Giving implies charity. Charity implies obligation and debt. Sharing is just… human, or at least what humans should be.
And besides – curly fries won’t change anything. It won’t change the biases I struggle to see through or the way my life is going, or the way his life is going, where he’ll sleep tonight or or where either of us will eventually end up.
But in sharing my lunch I meet his eyes, and in meeting his eyes I can meet my own in the mirror, and for today, that’s enough for me.