Breaking Bread

A shoe kicked at a pigeon. The bird moved away as it pecked at the sidewalk.

“Sally would insist that’s Julius Caesar or Cleopatra,” mocked James, standing under the awning at lunchtime.

“Napoleon,” Liz suggested.

Sally, the office manager, actually believed in reincarnation. She was obsessed with the concept and spoke about it constantly as if she were an authority. Which was ridiculous. She asserted hamsters, lizards, cockroaches, even slugs might have once been human souls.

“You know, that could be a Greek philsopher,” James laughed, kicking harder at the bird. It spooked momentarily then resumed its circular walk. The pigeon’s tiny eyes looked right, left, down at the sidewalk, left, right, up at the two, back down. Its ridiculous head never stopped pumping. “Didn’t the great Plato call us featherless bipeds?”

Liz laughed. She nibbled at her bagel.

The bird did walk like an ordinary person. It strutted purposefully forward, one leg following another. It’s two eyes never stopped searching the small space in front of them.

The pigeon was simply going about its daily business, looking for crumbs, guided by animal instinct. Propelled by hunger.

The little bird was the embodiment of persistence.

A broken feather in one wing dangled as it walked.

Just a pigeon. Perhaps more ruffled than most.

“Poor thing.” Liz tore off a chunk of her bagel and tossed it onto the sidewalk.

The pigeon batted its gift about, the way all pigeons do.

Money Changer

A week cashiering at the convenience store and I was bored.

Ring up beer. Ring up chips. Ring up cigarettes.

When you’re a psychology student coping with exorbitant tuition, you’ll take any job.

At first the customers kept me entertained, and some were actually interesting, but I began to observe definite behaviors and it became so predictable.

There were customers who never stopped complaining. There were customers who wanted to stand there and talk and talk and talk, about nothing, holding up the line. There were customers who’d pick up every product in the store and read every label as if they had nothing better to do.

Some of the customers were completely shameless. Right in front of my eyes they stole coins from the little plastic penny tray on the counter.

But one regular customer puzzled me.

The elderly woman came into the store every afternoon. She must’ve had a serious case of osteoporosis because her posture was severely stooped. She wore a bad wig. Standing beside her rickety little cart, the old woman would always lean against the counter and ask for two cheap chicken wings and one lottery ticket. And as she waited, she’d reach into the little plastic penny tray and start fingering the coins, picking them up, staring at one, then another, turning them over.

But she never stole.

The old woman did exactly the same thing every day. She’d reach into that tray, very deliberately turn several pennies over with her fingers, take none.

Obviously she was compulsive.

As I looked down on this pointless behavior it began to bother me. She was certainly poor. I assumed she was tempted by the presence of a few pennies. I concluded that one day she’d steal a coin or two. Like so many other customers.

Money changes people.

“Tell me,” I said one day, feeling more irritated than usual as she turned another coin over. “Why do you do keep doing that?”

She looked up at me, eyes bright. “Heads is lucky.”

I looked down at the little plastic tray. She’d turned every coin heads up.

She’d made the pennies lucky for everyone.

The Teddy Bear

As the meeting broke up, Reggie and I stood by the conference room window, gazing down at the city.

Many stories below it was a typical weekday. Cars pushed down the avenue. People hurried to and fro along the sidewalk, scurried into and out of buildings.

“There he is again,” I remarked, pointing straight down. Moving past our front door was a homeless man.

At one time or another everybody in the office had encountered this homeless person. Every day the man shuffled along in front of our building, wearing the same shredded clothing, face lost in caveman hair. But today he carried an enormous teddy bear.

“He must’ve won it at the county fair last summer,” joked Reggie.

“Leave him alone,” Beverly chided, having gathered her laptop and folders. “You don’t know his story. He obviously has a mental condition.” She hurried out of the conference room.

“Obviously,” Reggie said to me and laughed. “Remember that woman who looked like a corpse who used to hang out at the bus stop screaming and shouting? Now that was one loony tune. I wonder what happened to her. Probably overdosed.

“Oh, check this out,” he continued enthusiastically. “A couple days ago I saw a guy steal a ladder. I was in line at the bank looking out the window when I saw some homeless guy grab a ladder leaning up against a building. Then he starts running off with it. Then here comes a security guard running after him!”

I laughed.

During lunch hour I had to go to the bank myself.

After dumping cold coffee I rode the elevator down to the lobby and stepped out onto the busy street.

With less than an hour I had to hurry. I had to walk five blocks to the bank, wait forever in line then return in time for the next meeting.

It appeared everyone else in the city had urgent business, too. People on a mission flooded down the concrete channels, careful not to collide.

They streamed smoothly along, like ball bearings that were magnetized, each repelling.

Thousands of paths intersected but seldom touched.

I crossed Fourth Avenue and turned a corner. And there he was half a block away, shuffling very slowly toward me. The homeless man. Carrying that enormous teddy bear.

The man was shambling along as if he were aimless and had no place to go. His face was hidden in hair. His two bare arms closely hugged the bear. With unseen eyes he seemed to stare straight ahead through every person that passed by.

I regarded the huge teddy bear and all of a sudden imagined the homeless man as a small child. In my mind I removed his beard, clipped his hair, erased grime and the cruelty of Time to picture him–try to imagine him as a very young child. And I wondered if, once upon a time, he’d been happy.

How could a child know he’d spend years of his life on the cold street?

As I drew near the man, a disturbing truth became evident. Contrasted with his very dirty arms and ruined clothes, the large teddy bear was clean and new. Where had he grabbed it?

The bear certainly didn’t belong to him. I wondered if there was a child somewhere in the city that was heartbroken.

The homeless man was in front of me. Pretending I didn’t see him, I veered to one side.

He blocked me.

“I found this on the street,” he said clearly, presenting me with the teddy bear. “Is it yours?”

The Good of People

Midnight passed.

I found myself beneath the city, riding home on the subway with the homeless, the aimless, the guilty, the silent. Beyond the windows rushed darkness. Cold light filled the car. Eyes avoided eyes.

Secretly, without betraying my curiosity, I studied the late night passengers who rode with me.

Several feet away in a wheelchair sat an extremely old man. He wore a tattered bathrobe. His head had fallen to his chest. He was tipping forward. I thought he might spill onto the floor at any moment.

Across from the old man, two riders sat with lowered eyes.

One had long peroxide hair, blue fingernails, hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks–a prostitute. She appeared to be twenty going on fifty. Hands trembling. A meth addict.

The other was a man whose hardened face and shaved head were covered with crude tattoos. Etched in prison, I surmised.

I was careful that neither noticed me.

The prostitute wore a tiny skirt and heavy winter jacket. Both of her legs were scarred. I wondered how she received those scars and how she might have smiled when she began down her path. Through what turns had she come to be seated there? Did she ever think about her future?

The man with the tattoos wore an angry expression that seemed permanent. I tried to imagine the crimes he might have committed. His mask of tattoos contained a clown, a skull and a gun, and painful words that would never be erased.

I lifted my gaze a fraction to observe others who rode after midnight. I found more of the same: eyes aimed nowhere.

Where were these people going? To what end did their lives lead?

As I looked on critically, I realized these late night riders of the subway were no different than anyone else. Moving through time hoping to find a place where they might be whole.

These lives had been reduced to futile existence. Drifting through a black tunnel unseen. Riding forward, station after station after station after station, never arriving.

How many in this world ride with no destination? I wondered.

What is the good of people?

The old man drooping in the wheelchair suddenly toppled onto the floor.

Two passengers jumped up.

The young prostitute leaned over and reached toward the old man with her trembling hand.

“Are you okay, bro?” asked the man with the tattoos, as he helped the old man back up into the wheelchair.

I did nothing.

A Song for Old Warriors

The old men sat under a canopy before the marble monument. They had fought in World War II. Many were in wheelchairs. All would soon die.

The warriors struggled to stand up for the advancement of the color guard, and they remained standing for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer. They quietly retook their seats.

A retired general approached the podium and spoke about the nightmare war long ago and those who fought. He recalled how a multitude of ordinary citizens–janitors, farmers, factory workers–had come together to defend high ideals. The heads of the very old men did not move.

A singer was then introduced. She was a little girl, just seven years old. She wore a vest of silvery sequins. Her face was made up with red lipstick. Microphone in hand, the very young girl glided confidently onto the stage and raised two pale arms. With a booming voice she began God Bless America while her grinning father circled with a video camera, recording his starlet.

As she sang the tiny girl stepped down from the stage and sashayed with her microphone up to the inscrutable faces of the old men. Her own face beamed with affection, and her hands formed exaggerated gestures as she directly addressed each gray head. The performance seemed an act learned by a child from television. The bold familiarity, perhaps tolerable in an adult, was unsettling from a seven-year-old girl.

The girl’s voice climbed until it wavered. Her high voice strained to exploit every syllable of the song. It sought to imbue every word with an infinity of feeling. The child floated in front of the very old men with her twinkling eyes, and she smiled with absolute sincerity.

The heads of the warriors did not move.

As I observed this strange performance from the back row, I was struck by the eyes of the precocious little girl. Her eyes were so bright.

Then I understood.

The performance came from a little girl’s heart. She was a budding life. Her ambition was to shine. Her hope was to shine a bright light upon those who listened.

Before her sat warriors who had fought against darkness, and who would soon return to the inescapable darkness.

The song reached a resounding crescendo. The very young girl raised her hands theatrically, palms upward.

“. . . my home sweet home.”

Some of the old men struggled to their feet for a standing ovation. Some sat and wept.