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.

``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.''

``Is she expecting you?'' I asked. By this time I was beginning to catch on.

``I mailed her a post card the day before I left. She should have gotten it ... maybe today.'' What inexhaustible assurance, I thought to myself. Maybe she, too, is away on a visit. Maybe she's left Caribou altogether. I'd hate to see his face should a total stranger open the door.

The police station, when we finally arrived, was flooded with florescent light. Most important, it was dry. There were no cells since this was a campus police station, but ramps led to lower levels where even the loudest snoring couldn't possibly interfere with the night staff's own dreams as they dozed at the front desk. I could see immediately that Buddy, too, had eyed the lower level and its possibilities.

When the typical bureaucratic response came, he couldn't have been more dejected. ``Why, Maine isn't any more than a couple of hours away. You'd be across the border by midnight,'' offered the head officer. The border might be close, I thought to myself, but Caribou is as far from us as Washington, D.C.

I could feel Buddy's desperation, and for the moment I needed distance from it. I thought of an excuse to break away temporarily. I could sense the utter disbelief when I told him I was going back into the rain to make a phone call. He was sure he would never see me again. It was written all over his face.

Out in the rain - in the half-open phone booth - I found myself thinking a little more freely. I began to examine the puzzle pieces: No realistic sense of the money such a trip would require. No thought for what challenges might lie ahead, even simple ones like weather. No taking into account the plans or lives of other people. This was a cockeyed effort to set straight with one brief trip what had undoubtedly taken years to fall apart and go awry. Perhaps a well-intentioned effort, but obviously dangerous to himself and possibly to others.

Standing there alone in the wet night, I suddenly understood what had evaded me. The poverty and somewhat ragged appearance had been misleading. Apart from these, Buddy could have been a mirror image of any number of people one comes across in daily life. How often have any of us resorted to a wave of the hand, a hastily written memo, or a slap-dash plan to set the world straight? How often have we carried out our own ``ful-ly documented'' solution without regard for the concerns and lives of others?

There was no way of knowing, for instance, that at that very moment people in positions of power were sponsoring what the world would soon judge a hopelessly ill-conceived plan to free hostages in the Middle East (quite apart from the controversy as to who was involved in funneling the profits to the contras). But the final blame lies fully neither with Buddy nor the White House.

We have become a society that encourages simple solutions, hastily conceived projects so long as they appear bold and decisive, and action without a sense of detail, implications, or history. So little thought is given to whose toes or lives we might be trampling on. When it's all over, we're sometimes sorry. Sometimes we even try to cover our tracks - or become self-deceived - while Buddy eventually would be forced to face his mistake, primarily because of his poverty. That would be his good fortune, whether he ever realizes it or not.

All of this seemed to me like a kind of starkly lit epiphany, raw and tough to face but at the same time tremendously freeing. I knew I could never explain this to Buddy; he, like the rest of us, would have to discover and rediscover it for himself, mostly through experience. But for the moment it enabled me to see things a little more clearly, enough anyway so that I thought of at least trying to call one of the city shelters for the homeless. Generally they were closed at this time of year, but we found the weather had forced several to open, and there was room at one for Buddy.

A feeling of triumph swept between us as we drove down the rain-slick streets, under elevated subway tracks and past street signs that were almost impossible to read through the fogged windshield. There was a sense of how much we needed each other that night, even though we would probably never meet again.

As he stepped out of my car, I warned him that some of the ``guests'' might eye his meager belongings. I gave him all that was left in my wallet - three crumpled dollar bills. He planned to set off in the morning, but I doubt he did. The rain continued relentlessly for three solid days. What happened in Caribou I'll never know - until I receive the post card he promised to send.

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