On Sunday the restaurant was slow, so I got cut from work early. I walked toward the river. The sun was starting to set and it was very pretty, and there were lots of people playing with babies and running and stretching and lounging in the grass. Some people were staring at the water and some people were staring at their companions and some people were staring at other people, like I was.
I walked along the water for awhile and thought about sitting in the grass, but I couldn’t decide if I wanted to actually sit in the grass, so I kept walking. The path curved away from the river, I was getting to the piers now, the piers that are actually gyms and event spaces, so I walked away from the water, cut over. Maybe I’d head a little bit uptown to a rooftop bar I knew, sit with a cocktail. Or maybe I’d take a train home, sit on the fire escape with the bottle of rose in the fridge. I could go to a movie, it was hot, and I hadn’t been to the movies in awhile. What was playing, I wondered without touching my phone. So many options. Too many. I kept walking.
The further I got from the water, the hotter it got, the slight breeze dissipating. It was maybe 6 p.m. I passed some boutiques, some chain stores, a makeup store that I usually find it hard to resist, but I walked by. Well, there’s a decision, I found one thing I don’t want to do.
Then I walked by Mr Jonathan. He was sitting on a pipe, or an electric meter, a hydrant, his large body propped up on a stool that wasn’t a stool. He was wearing a football jersey, jeans. He was sweating. He looked hot. He looked miserable. Another lady was shaking her head no, walking away, when I made eye contact and stopped. I was waiting for the universe to give me something, and well, here it was, it gave me Mr. Jonathan.
“Thank you for stopping, ma’am, I wouldn’t normally do this, but I’m so hot and hungry, I don’t have anything, I’m just trying to get some food in my belly, I haven’t eaten anything all day but a cupcake, I’ve got an awful headache.”
I tried to picture the cupcake. Not designer. Unless, it was designer? All he’d eaten was a $5 two-bite confection that a PR girl had bought for herself, a morning treat, about to bite into it, when this man, Mr Jonathan, asked if she could spare some change. She’d pause. I don’t have change, she’d say. But here. Take this cupcake. I shouldn’t be eating it anyway. Thank you ma’am, he’d say. No thank you, she’d say, down the street with a spring in her step anyway. She avoided the calories. And done a good deed. Or maybe this wasn’t an episode of a television show and the man had just bought himself a cupcake.
I didn’t ask what kind of cupcake.
“I’m really sorry you’re having a hard time.” I was looking for a dollar. At first not having a wallet seemed like this great, liberating idea, but really, I just couldn’t ever find anything. What was all this shit in my bag, anyway. Receipts and papers and crumpled up menus. Was I going to empty out this whole bag, to find a dollar. Old metro cards, notebooks.
“Can you just listen to me? More than a dollar, I just need someone to listen.” I’d found a five, success. I held it in my hand. I closed my bag. I apologized for not listening. Then I asked him to tell me about his life.
He had been in New York for eight days, or nine days, he couldn’t remember. He’d come in from Flint, Mich. on a bus. He didn’t know anyone here, but there wasn’t work in Flint, and people said, if you want those city jobs, you’ve got to get to New York.
I asked him what kind of work he thought he’d find here.
He was hoping to get a job as a cook. That’s what he was doing in Flint. Well first he was in the factory, then that closed. Then he was working for a car wash, a good car wash, and he left there on good terms. Then he was working as a cook. But there wasn’t enough work. So everyone said, come here.
I was trying to follow along, but it was a little confusing. Did he know anyone here? He did not. Did he have any connections here? He did not. What did he think was going to happen when he got off the bus? I didn’t ask him that. I don’t know if sleeping on the street had been part of plan. The timeline is a little fuzzy. But sometime between getting off the bus and now, his suitcase was stolen. “What was in your suitcase,” I asked. “Everything,” he said. Money. Wallet. Phone. Everything. He’d been sleeping on the streets since. Where? “This little porch over there,” he cocked his head.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, Ma’am. I really don’t. I need $80 to get a bus ticket back to Michigan, and at this point I’d do that in a second, but that would take me a month to get, at the rate I’m going, and at this point, I just need food and water. And nobody will stop. You’re only the second person who has stopped all day.”
“That’s really hard, Mr. Jonathan, I wish you the best of luck.” I shook his hand and gave him $5, apologized that it wasn’t more. Then I walked away.
I thought about what I could do for him, get him a job? Research shelters? It seemed like too much. I had my own problems, not dire ones, but ones. A bus ticket though. I could do that. I looked up the bus ticket from New York to Flint. $80. Like he said. I started to go through the process, on my phone, just to see if it was even possible to buy someone a ticket for pickup, just to see if I could. $18 gift fee. That’s bullshit, Greyhound. That’s bullshit. But still, what’s a $20 difference in handing someone a life rope when they need one. I clicked through, got to another screen, the button that should have said “pick up” wasn’t there, only the one that said, “print now.” But it had just said … I was troubleshooting. I’d start over. Or I’d go back to work and print the ticket there. Oh don’t mind me I just have to use the printer to print this bus ticket for this guy.
I’d backtracked and retracked, trying to get to the option to “pickup with a password,” when he walked by me and sat on a bench. He was smoking a cigarette. Maybe someone gave him the cigarette. Or maybe they’d been in his jeans. That’s fine. People smoke. Then he turned and I saw he was on a cell phone. I watched him for a bit, he’d listen on the phone, push in some numbers, listen some more.
Opening line possibilities: I was just buying you a bus ticket. I was just looking at the bus ticket site. I was going to buy you a bus ticket, but now I’m questioning the validity of your story.
He didn’t owe me the truth. Maybe he’d discovered that the one detail that made people actually ache for him, actually want to help him out, was if he had lost his phone. Somehow the story without having lost the phone was less tragic. So he had to lie. Had to. He put the phone back in his pocket. I waited a beat and approached him.
“Hi again, Mr Jonathan. I stopped to check my email and got distracted by this sunset.” It was really very pretty, a cloud highlighted in sun, just lovely.
“Oh I just found this phone.”
He saw that I saw he had a phone.
“Well good luck with that sir. And with everything.”
Later I’d tell my therapist how close I came to buying him a bus ticket and he’d look at me and say, “Well, you wanted to spend the hundred dollars. And if he’d made it just a little bit easier for you, you would have. But instead he made you pause. But I bet you spent it anyway.”
I walked around for another two hours. I walked over to the the High Line. I hadn’t been since winter. It was so lovely in the summer, lush, there are spots where it’s overgrown and you have to duck under the branches and it feels like you’re actually in the wild, instead of where you are, a park on some elevated tracks in a city full of people.
I got off the High Line at the end, got a Slurpee at 7-11, walked to the train. I got off near my house, took a detour and walked by my favorite restaurant, decided that if my favorite bartender was there, I’d stop for glass of wine, if not, I’d keep walking. He was there, and one glass of wine was two, plus the tagliatelle (“What’s in this that makes it so good? Butter?” “That’s the secret to most of our dishes, actually.”). Leave a tip and that’s $50. There’s half your bus ticket right there. Which purchase would have made me feel better? And which, you?