My wife and I see the guy a lot on our block in Manhattan. He has thick, curly hair, a heavy beard, always wears a suit and is homeless.
I figure the suit must get uncomfortable on hot summer days, but he never even takes off the jacket and somehow keeps the getup in decent condition. Maybe he wears the suit to preserve a measure of dignity for himself, to help him feel he isn’t some kind of living eyesore to the people who rush by him heading toward the subway station every morning. All the businessmen heading to work wearing suits. You wear a suit, I wear a suit, we’re pretty much in the same social sphere. The only difference is I’ve got no job to head off to, no bed to sleep in at night, no money, no food, nothing but nothing besides this nice suit I wear on my back here, just like you.
But maybe I’m projecting. Maybe it’s he keeps the jacket on because he just doesn’t like carrying it.
There is a charitable drop-in center on our block where the homeless can go for a meal, or basic medical care, or to get deloused, or clean themselves up. Further up the block there’s a fancy Italian café with a bench outside. These days I see more and more homeless people on the bench very early on the morning, before the place opens and its customers come in for their pastries and lattes. I figure the homeless are waiting there for the center to open so they can get something to eat too. The guy with the suit is sometimes on that bench.
A few weeks back we were heading to our place in Maine after a long stay in New York. It was early in the morning, and I passed the guy a few times while loading up the car. That day he wasn’t on the café bench up the block. He was sitting alone on a low stoop in front of an apartment building two houses down from us.
My wife had been waiting downstairs to keep an eye on the cats and my computer bag, and as I passed the guy for the last time before we took off, I saw that she’d gotten out of the car and was walking toward me on the sidewalk.
“Where you going?” I asked. That’s when I noticed she was carrying one of those clear plastic travel bags with slide zippers.
She showed me the travel bag. She’d gone to the corner fruit stand, bought an apple, orange and banana, and put it inside. She’d also stuffed in a bottle of water, a rain poncho and Yankee cap we kept in the car, the cap being one those Stadium giveaways that winds up in the back forever.
“I made this package for that man,” she said, nodding past me toward the homeless guy. “I can’t stand seeing him there anymore without doing something to help.” Her voice caught. “He’s wearing a suit for God’s sake.”
As if to say he was trying. We couldn’t be exactly sure for what, but trying for something. And maybe he could have used for at least one person to take notice. Never mind needing a little food and water.
I eyed the travel bag a second. I’d always had trouble opening the lousy slide zipper and wouldn’t miss complaining about it. I’d sort of miss the rain poncho, which was a good quality slicker, but figured I could buy another one. As for the freebie Yankee cap, well, I’m compulsive about hanging onto those things, never mind I’ve collected hundreds over the years. But I didn’t gripe about it either.
“Meet you back in the car,” I said.
My wife went over to give him the travel bag, returned to the car, got in the driver’s door. Watching the guy in the rear view mirror, I saw him stand up out of the doorway with the bag, inspect its contents through the clear plastic and start to open it.
“I hope he likes fruit more than I do,” I said, trying to lighten the moment. My wife is always trying to shove healthy food in my direction.
She ignored me and pulled away from the curb.
It was a couple of weeks later and we were back in New York. As usual, I was up in the apartment writing and trying to get the cat’s tail off my computer keyboard when my wife came through the door. She’d been out and about and looked a little upset.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“Remember the guy I gave the travel bag to?” she asked.
“Well, the fruit man told me he just took out the banana and dumped the rest. Left it on the street, travel bag and all.”
I looked at her. “Is he sure about that?”
“He felt bad even telling me about it, but didn’t want me to give the homeless guy more stuff he’d just throw away,” she said. “You know the hot dog man?”
I nodded. The hot dog man sets up next to the fruit man most days.
“Well, he took the poncho out of the bag and kept it,” my wife said, her face full of disappointment. “Hated for it to go to waste. He told the fruit guy he feels kind of guilty about keeping it, but that he’ll give it back to me if I want.”
I looked at her. “You gonna let the hot dog man hang onto the poncho?”
“Might as well,” she said with a shrug. “He’s always out there on the street. With all the rain we’re getting this summer, at least somebody’ll put it to good use.”
A minute or so passed. She really seemed down about the homeless guy throwing away her package. I wanted to say something to make her feel better, but couldn’t think of anything.
“People are hard to figure,” I said finally
“Yeah,” she said, and was quiet for a long while afterward.
“Hey,” my wife said. “You’ll never guess what happened!”
It was a few days later. I was at the computer fending off the cat’s tail. She’d been out again. This time she’d come home looking cheerful.
I asked her what happened.
“Well, I’m walking past the sandwich joint across the street from the fancy café, and a kid who works there’s hosing down the sidewalk out front, and he sees me and asks if I’ll stop a minute,” she says.
“And then I stop, and he waves across the street, and the homeless guy with the suit comes hurrying over from the café’s bench,” she said. “And he’s wearing the Yankee cap!”
I scratched my head. “Wait a sec,” I said. “Didn’t the fruit guy tell you he ditched that cap with the travel bag?”
“Right,” she said. “That’s why the kid from the sandwich shop stopped me. He speaks Spanish, and the homeless guy with the suit only speaks Spanish, and asked him if he’d seen me around.”
I didn’t bother asking her how the homeless guy expected the sandwich shop kid to know who she was. There are hundreds of women living on our block, plus countless others who go walking up and down the street all throughout the day. But I’ve learned she’s one of those people everybody always recognizes, just like I’m one of those people who sort of blends into the crowd.
“Okay,” I said, getting everything straight in my head. “The homeless guy runs over to you…”
“Wearing the Yankee cap.”
“Right, he’s got the cap on…”
“And he starts speaking to me in Spanish, talking a mile a minute, while the sandwich shop kid’s trying to keep up with him and translate.”
I look at her. “So what’s his story?”
“The story’s that after I gave him the travel bag, he couldn’t figure out how to open the slide zipper all the way, but managed to open it enough to get out the banana and Yankee cap,” my wife said. “He got so frustrated with the bag, he put it down on the sidewalk, and went looking for something on the street that would help him cut it open so
he could get out the rest of the stuff.”
“And what? The hot dog man copped the bag while he was gone?”
She shook her head. “He’s got memory problems,” she said. “The homeless man, that is. And he forgot where he left it, and felt terrible, because he was afraid I might’ve seen him put it down, and thought he’d thrown it away. Which he didn’t after all.”
I looked at her. “And then, later on, the hot dog man finds it.”
“Right. He hears from the fruit man that I gave it to the homeless guy, and both of them figure the homeless guy didn’t want it.”
“And the hot dog man manages to get it open and takes the poncho.”
“Exactly. So it won’t wind up in the trash.”
I shake my head. Only in New York, I think. “Well, I’m glad it turns out he didn’t throw away your package.”
“You and me both,” my wife said. “Plus he said he really loves the Yankee cap and hasn’t taken it off since I gave it to him.”
I considered that and grinned.
“Told you that slide zipper was good for nothing,” I said.