The guy ordering his sandwich was swaying back and forth and slurring his words like a punch-drunk boxer, while the two young women behind the counter exchanged a “wish-we-were-anywhere-but-here” look. At first glance he seemed to be in his forties, but then I decided he was much younger and just hard used. There were scratches on his face and a big red bruise under one eye like a souvenir from a recent fight. His clothes were shabby but clean.
He got his sandwich, plopped down at the table next to mine and leaned over to ask what I was reading. I was irritated for a moment but rebooted my brain and held up the book. “A mystery by Michael Connelly,” I answered. “First thing by him I’ve read. Great story.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Guy who wrote The Lincoln Lawyer. Good stuff. Here’s what I’m reading.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a beat-up copy of Gone With the Wind. So then we’re comparing English and American mystery novels and Louis L’Amour and Rex Brand westerns. Just two guys in a sandwich shop talking about books. And ignoring the curious glances of people at nearby tables.
He told me he's homeless and usually finds a place to crash outside, though he’ll sometimes sleep in a shelter depending on who’s there that night. “You gotta be careful where you crash,” he said. “You can run into some really messed up people in shelters.”
“Yeah, life on the streets ain’t no joke. I got jumped by a couple of assholes just last week” he said, pointing to the bruise on his cheek. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence his voice would trail off, he’d mumble incoherently and his chin would drop to his chest. Drugs? Narcolepsy? Brain injury? I wasn’t going to ask. But if I quietly said something related to the conversation, he’d rouse himself and apologize for nodding off.
When he got up to dump his trash and mine I slipped out my wallet, took out a ten and folded it in my hand. When he came back to sit I slid it across the table and said, “I hope you’re not offended. From one bookworm to another.” He glanced around and stuffed the bill in his shirt. “Thanks man. I’ll walk out with you.”
When we got outside he said, “You know maybe we could get together once in a while, talk about books.” I thought it over for a split second and said, “Well you know I hardly ever make it downtown.” If he realized I was politely brushing him off he didn’t show it. “Hey man, that’s cool. Thanks for the conversation.” He patted his pocket. “And the help.”
We try to remember that everybody’s a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and consideration, but we have to set limits. I didn''t think it would be a good idea to give him my phone number. But I don’t fault him for trying; I was a stranger who’d just handed him a ten-dollar bill; who knows what else I might have been good for? He’s playing the survival game as best he can.
But if I run into him again I’ll be happy to spring for his lunch and talk about books. In the meantime I hope he manages to sleep out of the rain and cold, and that his days bring more kindness than cruelty.
Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. His novella, "Spin Cycles," was published in November, 2014 by Gemma Media. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. A short film based on his poem “Fortress” is currently in production by filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He was selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” He is currently an artist fellow at the St. Botolph Club of Boston.