There are angels. I swear there are. I know there are. They're not white glowing beings with wings of silver and halos. Nothing like that all. No. Not at all.
“Fuck off!” I finally yelled at the guy hanging in the passenger window of my car. I had stopped at the light, at crest of the offramp, on my way to pick Dana up from the office. This guy was there with a sign, “Homeless Vet. I died for this country. Now I need your help.”
It was no big deal. There were always guys standing on that corner. I had made a deal with myself: give when someone asks, thats what it says in the Torah. But only give when it's easy. So, on days I caught the light, I drove through without a second look. If I was farther than three cars back, I ignored their stares and played with the radio. I gave plenty. At least once a week some guy would get a dollar from me with a heartfelt “Good Luck!” while I looked everywhere but his eyes.
I hadn't recognized this skinny black man before. I didn't matter of course. The corner was a revolving turnstile with guys fighting for the spot, stalking it like vultures, waiting for an empty moment when they could swoop in and claim the coveted perch for themselves. The city doesn't allow panhandling, and so the cops would sweep every once in a while. And if the cops hadn't been in there in a while, guys would call and rat out current resident hoping to curry points with the men in blue so that they'd have some protection when it was their turn to guard the nest.
“You gotta have more than that. That can't be it” He reached his hand deeper in the car, his long bony fingers, black as night, gnarled with arthritis, and scarred by life, aiming for my the wallet that I had stupidly taken out in front of him.
“I'm an Idiot! I'm a fucking idiot!” I kept thinking to myself. My heart was pounding. My hands were sweating. Hell, my life was at risk, and it was my goddam fault. I had broken my rule...twice already, and now it was biting me in the ass.
“That's all there is. Leave me the hell alone!”
By the time I had come off the ramp, there were two cars and a truck ahead of me in line for the light. It was a no charity Tuesday. Great. No worries. I sat in the car, the news on as it usually was. I saw the scarecrow of a man squatting low, leaning against the thin steel post of road sign. His knees rose high, almost to his ears, so that his shins framed the cardboard sign that he held in front of his chest. “I died for this country.”
“Such powerful words,” I thought. Here's this guy, who some four decades ago had been a kid, whose life was filled with dreams, and laughter. A family. Maybe even a girlfriend or a wife and kids. There was a promise of so much in front of him, and now, all that ever was, seemed to be behind him.
His eyes, sunken dark spots swimming in seas of bright white, glowing against the contrast of his summer blackened skin, made their way from car window to car window. He paused at each only long enough to acknowledge with the drivers that they had neither time nor use for him on such a beautiful late summer day.
“I died for this country.”
I had only ever once seen someone say such truth on his sign. That one had been written in big swirly script, “Friendly drunk. Angry alcoholic. Please help keep me happy.” A smiley face in blue stood out against the dark, weathered cardboard. In small red letters in the far bottom corner it continued, “Thanks, from my kids.” He had been a jovial drunk, sitting in on a bench in the milieu of the newly remodeled Times Square. His clothes were worn, and he was unshaven and cloudy eyed, but his smile and belly were broad and, more importantly, his hat was full.
If I was queued for the “charity” slot, I would pull my wallet out quickly reach for the mighty dollar and quickly return my wallet. It was all smart and slick, and cleverly designed to put me at the least amount of risk exposure possible. I wanted to be helpful, sure, and do what I was supposed to, certainly. But these guys are dangerous. No need to take chances. But today I was clear. There were enough people in front of me so I needn't worry. There was nothing to do. My wallet stayed safely in place.
The light turned green. The first two cars, eager to escape the hot seats immediately next to this specter of a man made their turns and were gone in a blink. The truck was not so lucky. It rolled back slightly, air brakes whining their complaints, before lurching forward towards the intersection. The driver swung the behemoth to the right so that he could work his way into the left turn he wanted to take. With each effort, large black plumes of smoke emerged from the polished stainless exhaust pipes and danced their way down trailer until the crystallin blue sky of early September was shrouded in a veil of winter-like despair. By the time the truck was safely on its way, the light was red, and I was in the spot.
I looked down into my lap. Eye contact was the last thing I wanted. This was a charity free Tuesday. That's all there was to it. It was all I was prepared for. But how long can you stare at your own fingers? Besides, I needed to check the status of the traffic light. Slowly, I looked up and when the rap came on the passenger window, like a mortar round shattering the silence of a dessert night, I jumped and instinctively turned in its direction. And there he was.
Our gazes met and for a moment, in the darkest depths at the center of his eyes, I was peering into the endlessness of tomorrow. And then, I wasn't. Instead his smile filled my field. Chapped lips, a muted purple, swollen and cracked like a dried river bed, spread broadly in the passenger window. It was an easy smile. Soft in a way that took me by surprise given his sign and the depth and emptiness of his eyes. Pink and brown gums embraced teeth that resembled piano keys in vibrancy and pattern. A spindly hand appeared above his right ear. An exaggerated index finger pointed down. “Open the window,” he mouthed silently, and so I did.