Thirty-Fourth and Little Street
Every day, I pass by the same homeless man who rattles the same cup at me. He holds the same sign, he wears the same clothes, and his matted hair never changes.
There on the corner of Thirty-Fourth and Little St, when I've passed through with my briefcase to my job at the local paper downtown, I've seen him (and smelled him) every day since the first day of my unpaid college internship that eventually landed me the job. I remember my college buddies and I went onto Google Maps one time to look for him on Street View. Sure enough, even when my friends and I were Freshmen in high school, he was sitting there, rattling the same cup, holding the same sign, wearing the same clothes with that matted hair, a mop atop his greasy scalp. His face was a dark blob, blurred out by the camera on the Google car. No one knew his face anyway. No one knew his name either. He was like a ghost frozen in time, a hologram, a glitch in the universal matrix.
My dad told me when I was very little that giving a homeless person money is like feeding a stray cat: if you ever stop, there will be problems. For the most part, I always believed him. Regardless of my intensive Liberal Arts education for my Bachelor's of English, some prejudices are hard to shake off. There was something different about this homeless man though: more than usual, I was scared shitless of him. Maybe that's why I started giving him money. Did I feel bad about seeing him there, knowing he had sat there since at least my Freshman year of high school (That freeloader should get a job! my dad would say), or was my instinctive monkey-brain afraid that a suspiciously large man, regardless of social status, was capable of hurting a scrawny journalist like me if he wanted to? I don't know. What I do know is this: it made my skin crawl to see him sitting there as I rounded the corner each day; to listen to him rattling his cup each day like a metal waterfall-Ka-Chink Ka-Chink Ka-Chink!-and see his sign, the back of a pizza box with a crease down the middle, with big oafish block letters on it spelling two simple words: "GOD BLESS."
So yes, eventually I caved. It was a temporary relief from my fear, and each day when I passed and dropped my money into the cup I felt like a store-front mannequin, stiff as a board and white as a sheet, with a sweaty sheen glossing over my face like a lacquer.
For months, I gave that man a dollar, spare change from my pocket, something, until one day, I didn't have anything to give him. Against the loudness of the urban ambiance, his change cup rattled harder and harder-Ka-Chink, Ka-Chink, Ka-Chink! A lump swelled in my throat the first day I passed him with nothing to offer, and I took a wider berth than usual (too obviously) as I was terrified what he could do once he realized I had no handout, no crumpled up dollar bill to put in his filthy hand.
As I passed by him that day, I refused myself the opportunity to steal a glimpse at his face. Still, I felt his eyes on me. I expected commotion behind me, maybe he'd get up and go after me, a grubby hand on the shoulder of my freshly pressed white button-up. Maybe he'd yell. I imagined that his ragged voice must sound like gravel under a boot, a rusty tin can, a three pack-per-day habit for forty years. As I reached my hand out to grab the door to my office, ten feet from where he had sat since I was a kid, I finally allowed myself a glance his way. He hadn't looked up. His eyes were sunken; his features were dark, sharp, and gaunt. He was more like a zombie than a man, like he had died years ago yet was still alive. I slipped inside with my briefcase and fixed my tie, taking a deep breath. The office almost felt as safe as home.
Amidst the interior of the entryway, there were a variety of plants that the secretary, Charlotte, thought really livened the place up. Although, everyone who worked there thought she livened the place up, not the plants. Charlotte was a southern woman from Tennessee whose family, due to various circumstances she loved to talk about, had been transplanted to Florida. She was blonde, fifty, always rocked ruby red lipstick, and had watermelons for breasts that reminded everyone of Dolly Parton. I don't think the tits were why she was hired. In her case, it really was her personality.
"Good mornin', sugarbug! How're you doin'?" she beamed, our morning routine. She was always a ray of fucking sunshine. The light coming in through the massive front windows might as well have reflected light off her veneered teeth and straight into my eyeballs.
I replied meekly: "I'm fine, Charlotte, thanks for asking."
Everything about that day was normal. Leaving, however, was tricky. As the day flew by and came to a close, I grew concerned about how I could avoid this man. More than ever before, I never wanted to see him again because I was afraid, for whatever reason, of what he might do to me. I exited out the back of the building so as not to cross paths with him, thinking about his jagged, dirty fingernails ripping into my skin like a werewolf, thinking about what kinds of cutaneous diseases I could get if I didn't have access to vaccines and modern medicine.
That was the first day in months I gave the man nothing. I refused to forget again.
The following day, as I left my third floor apartment (I liked the security more than the view), I checked my wallet to make sure I had money this time. I thought, maybe after yesterday he's going to want to talk to me some more, get to know me on a personal basis-just like Dad said: a stray cat who wants to be let inside the house. As I walked to work, I ran through every possible thing I would say to say to this man who I was absolutely terrified of for no reason at all.
And as I rounded the corner of Thirty-Fourth and Little Street with my briefcase, and I had prepared every possible apology and rebuttal as I gave him today's rations, I noticed his usual spot was unoccupied.
For the first time ever, he wasn't there.
For the first time ever, I stopped on my route in front of where he sat, which still had all his things, few as they were, and I looked around cautiously to find him. My chest ached. I looked through his stuff, thought about leaving a dollar in his cup that still sat there, but decided against it for fear that someone else may come along and think they found free money.
So for the second day in a row, I gave this man nothing. My anxiety told me that he may come back at some point in the day. Again, at the end of the day, I left out the back door of the office. I stopped by the ATM close by my house and withdrew a twenty dollar bill. I never carried more than twenty in cash for fear of being robbed, and although I had never been robbed before, the possibility always scared me.
That morning, with extra cash in my pocket, I came prepared to ask the homeless man where he was the day prior before delivering my rehearsed apology as well as a more substantial monetary one. This would have been our first exchange of words throughout the months I had been giving him scraps. I was no good at small talk, but I felt obligated. As I walked up to the corner, money in hand, I expected to see him at his spot but again, he wasn't there. It looked as if he hadn't returned since he left the day prior.
Just like the previous day, I looked around to try to find the man. Standing in the middle of his belongings, glad that I had not left the dollar in his abandoned cup the previous day otherwise someone definitely would have stolen it from him, I first looked back the way that I came and saw nothing but cars bustling about the city, a couple walking hand in hand, an old lady waiting at the bus stop. Slowly, I turned and listened to the symphony of the city. The bullet train above the street, zooming past, rumbling. The sound of children laughing as they played at a local daycare that was a few buildings down from the office. The sound of a man's heavy breathing behind me.
I whipped around just as I felt hot breath on my neck. It left a noxious odor of rotten teeth and malt liquor, but there was no one there. Immediately, my stomach began churning, almost enough to elicit a gag from the very back of my throat, where a wet frog sat. I tried to gulp it down.
After that moment which felt like a century (come on, hurry up), I fled as quickly and calmly as I could, closing in on the remaining paces to my building and escaped inside. Just as the door was about to close, I stole a glimpse of a dark figure standing across the street from my building, and I was sure it was him. From inside the building, Charlotte looked at me wildly from the desk.
Determined to break the stale air, I offered our usual routine: "Good morning, Charlotte!" I was surprised my voice didn't shake. I noticed sweat was drenching my face. I turned to look out the front window to verify if that had been the homeless man, standing across the street. There was no one there. I left out the back door that day too, and an unnatural urgency carried me home. I broke a sweat as I stood at the ATM, and I withdrew another eighty dollars.
For the third day in a row, I gave the man nothing.
I laid in bed that night, thinking about what I might do if I encountered the man, I could not drum up anything to say. Everything about him terrified me. In my mind, I heard the relentless jingle of his cup. I thought of his matted hair and the lice that likely live on his dirty scalp. I thought of the hot breath on my neck, the stench of it and how I was sure that somehow it was him. I let that fear consume me as I attempted a restless sleep.
When I awoke, for the first time, I was terrified to go to work. My heart pounded like a prisoner rattling bars as I walked my normal route to work that day. I was sweating again, and I was sure Charlotte and everyone else would notice. As I rounded the corner of Thirty-Fourth and Little, mere feet from the man's camp, I started at the sidewalk. I could not look up as my mind screamed at me to turn around and sprint back home. The hundred dollars did not make me feel better. I grew queasy again, and I was sure if I opened my mouth to speak, my voice would crack like a whip.
As I hurried toward the door, I noticed all of his things were gone. He moved somewhere else, I thought (probably closer to my house!) The only trace he left behind was his sign, lying face-up on the street. GOD BLESS, it read. Litter.
I approached the building, I was acutely aware of everything but I noted nothing out of the ordinary aside from the sweat which soaked my fresh button-up shirt and the dampness of the twenty dollar bills I gripped in my right pocket. Still, just as always, there were people bustling to and fro on the busy streets, cars honking and the bullet train roaring, children playing (screaming?) at the daycare a few buildings down. I took a moment to pause beside the door of my building and look across the street to where I had seen him the day prior, and there was no one but a couple sitting on a park bench across the street. I heaved a sigh of relief and a grin cracked upon my face as I swung open the door to the building and walked inside.
"Good morning, Charlotte!"
Yet still, for the fourth day, with all the money in my pocket, I gave the homeless man nothing. And I had the best day working at that paper than I'd had in a long time.
As I left (through the front door this time) and walked home with the sun falling across the horizon, an ocean breeze blew in, a zephyr from the sea. I felt bubbly as ever, with the chipperness and optimism that I had previously only seen in Charlotte. Like a schoolgirl, I wanted to skip all the way back to my apartment that evening, briefcase in hand. Yet, commingled with the salt of the ocean and the salt of the morning's pit-stains, there was a lingering stench of something familiar. It grew stronger as I closed in on my apartment building. Stale malt liquor and piss.
Snapped out of my schoolgirl stupor, intense paranoia crashed into me like a tsunami, and I ran the few remaining blocks to get to my building. I couldn't stop even if I saw him on the sidewalk in front of me. Breathing through my shirt as if to stifle the odor, I flew up the stairs and slammed the door behind me; I locked the doorknob and the deadbolt, slid the chain, and took a deep breath.
I felt safe in my apartment. I poured myself a glass of water from the sink and drank the whole thing. As I stood there, I talked myself through my panic attack. It was easier to do here, at home behind a securely locked door high up above the street, where no one could break in through a window. I couldn't relax. I stayed in my living room all evening in front of the TV, flipping channels, unable to break out of my own obsessive thoughts. Eventually, when fatigue overcame anxiety, I retired to bed.
Cautiously, I slipped into sleep only to awaken in the middle of the night to pitch blackness and that putrid garbage juice cocktail that I smelled every time I rounded that corner and on my way home. The odor of dirty copper drifted through the air. Fear paralyzed me in a way it hadn't before. I couldn't move. My eyes cracked open in the darkness, and across the room, I saw it: a tall, lanky, dark figure in the corner by the curtains. The whites of its eyes floated like moonlit clouds.
I couldn't scream. I couldn't move.
Finally, I heard it, rattling against my eardrums:
Ka-Chink! . . . Ka-Chink! . . . Ka-Chink!