SMILE – SAD PEOPLE SUCK one of his signs reads. He has two signs.
The second sign explains that he needs money for a new guitar, that he is just trying to get by. On both pieces of cardboard, each letter has been neatly drawn in bright, primary colors.
“You’re not lactose intolerant, are you?” She asks, holding the coffee out to him.
“No, no, thank you,” he says, taking the coffee. “Thank you.”
She should also ask if he is allergic to cinnamon, but it slips her mind.
He sets the coffee down and traces over one of the letters in his sign with a bright blue Crayola marker. If he notices her taking a seat beside him, he makes no show of it.
“I wondered,” she begins, “if, in exchange for the coffee, you would tell me a story.” Yes, there must exist a dozen better ways to present such a request, but in that moment she can think of none.
“What kind of story?”
“Any story. Doesn’t have to be long. Just anything weird, or funny, or interesting…”
“Hmm. Let’s see. I’ve never been asked for a story before…”
“No. How about. . . if. . . instead of a story, I tell you a little bit about myself?”
“Well. I, believe it or not, even though I’m homeless, have a college degree.”
“In – ”
“Music Theory, which is basically like teaching music.”
“At the time, it was something I wanted to do for myself. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s something I want to get into. But – ” he glances at her, shakes his head, looks away again ” – the resources are, like, not there. I guess no one wants to hire a homeless guy, or, I don’t know. But. . . once you’re out, it’s so hard to get back in. You can wait four or five years for housing here. Still,” he adds quickly, “this is the best city to be in. The people here are the most understanding. I’m actually originally from Chicago. The people there are mean. And they don’t have time to, like, talk. Like this? This would never happen there – someone just stopping to listen? People there just don’t have the time. I’m just, like, are you even human? How do you people. . . socialize. . . if you don’t talk? You know?
“Some people look at you and they judge you like you’re not human. Like, I look at every human being as someone important, you know? Everyone is special. All of us are geniuses in our separate ways.”
She smiles at this and maybe he takes it for cynicism because he shrugs and says, just a little sheepishly, “I believe that.”
She nods enthusiastically this time.
He looks away and shakes his head. “People just need to drop – ” he stops and she thinks maybe he’s done talking to her because he doesn’t say anything for a long time.
“How do I say this?” He says finally. “People just need to drop their ego when it comes to homeless. The other day this guy told me, ‘Hey, walk with me, let’s talk’, and I was like ‘okay’ and he was just asking me a bunch of questions about myself and he was just in awe, like ‘Wow, man, you’ve been through a lot’, but I see it as just part of my journey, you know? It’s just part of what I have to go through.”
“Wow, that’s intense.”
“Yeah… I – ” he begins and his tone is apologetic again so she feels the need to clarify.
“Like, that’s a really awesome but intense way of looking at life.”
“Yeah, well, I see everything as a learning experience. Who knows, maybe I’ll get out in three, four, six years, but I think that at the end of this I’ll be a much better person – humbler for sure. There’s nothing more humbling than having to ask for money. Cause I used to be like that, too, you know. I would see people and judge them.”
“How long have you been on the streets?”
“Uh, let’s see. My mom passed away three years ago, so three years. I lost my childhood home when my mom passed away.”