At first glance
THE wind blew the watery night against the large plate-glass window. In 10 minutes it would be 9 o'clock, and I would have to close. A single figure stood inside the door apologizing profusely for the large puddle of rainwater forming at his feet. Like the window-browsers who sought refuge under the adjacent shop awnings, he obviously was retreating from the unseasonably cold New England rain. Occasionally, I meet someone who unconsciously forces a kind of epiphany, illuminating the very truth that's been floating elusively in consciousness, just beyond the grasp of words. Buddy, as he called himself, was to be such a person.Skip to next paragraph
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``Couldn't find 'em?'' I asked in a tone and cadence that I hoped would sound friendly. Earlier in the evening he had stopped to get directions to the nearest police station. ``I'm sure I'd have made it,'' he responded, ``but it started to rain ... cats and dogs.''
I studied him carefully. He wore a short-sleeved shirt with a loud print, the kind you'd expect to see at a beach party. It hung outside his pants. No coat, not even a jean jacket. He held his arms close to his body and shivered hard. A small hand towel was draped around his shoulders, when he wasn't using it to dry his rain-soaked hair. Perhaps it was the strawberry blond hair falling part-way over his ears that made him look as if he couldn't be a day over 20. He carried two small vinyl bags that were bulging to capacity.
One might easily have mistaken him for a street person, except for a certain freshness about his face - a sense of innocency, a hint of surprise at being caught by the thundershower. He seemed to have no knowledge of where to find cover: subway stations until closing time, the large covered entrance where street musicians often played, or other nooks that the nearby urban university readily affords.
It wasn't just that he was unfamiliar with the area; he apparently was unfamiliar with having to scrounge for cover. He obviously was beginning to feel desperate. Perhaps it was the chipped tooth that triggered my sense of caution or maybe it was the scar across his hand. If he wasn't a fighter, at some point he had been a little too careless or a little too impatient.
I offered to walk him up to the police station, explaining that my car was parked nearby. ``Where are you spending the night?'' I asked. ``Don't know,'' he said. ``Maybe the police have an extra cell.'' Then slowly he began to tell his story. As he unraveled it, I realized I wouldn't be able to leave him until I felt certain he had at least a dry place to sleep. To be honest, it wasn't out of a sense of pity so much as a desire to place something about him that was intensely familiar ... and yet so elusive.
``Left South Carolina with $25. It's all the money I had. The rides were good - long and good. Friendly people, sometimes they bought me meals.... But then I hit New York City. It's a zoo. I kept asking people for directions to Route 95. They never made any sense. Took me all afternoon, but I finally stumbled on to it myself.'' With this last statement, he sounded like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World.
I couldn't quite believe the $25 he started out with - and which had now dwindled to a small handful of change - were the last to his name. I asked what he had been doing in South Carolina.
``Short-order cook. They let us go at this time of year, until the season starts up again. Feed us good, and the pay's not bad. I share an apartment - one bedroom - with two guys.'' So there was something stable in his life after all. There had to be a little money stashed away, somewhere.
Having established these few basic facts made me feel more at ease as we walked down the brick sidewalks glistening with rain and reflecting the streetlights. I offered to share my umbrella. He declined, explaining that he was soaked to the bone and couldn't possibly get any wetter. Instinctively I knew that; the offer was meant more as a symbol than anything else.
We had fallen into step and were just reaching the point that strangers do when it's finally OK not to say anything. Without warning he blurted out: ``I was about to do something stupid so they'd have to give me a jail cell.'' The ease that had seemed so real vanished into the night. I tried to imagine what foolish act he had contemplated but decided it was best not to ask.
I tried a safer, more neutral tack instead: ``Where're you heading?''
``Maine. Town of Caribou. My Ma lives up there. Haven't seen her for 15 years. She didn't even raise me. Grand-ma did when things became mean between her and Dad.''