A hood covered his bowed and bearded face. If he were to stand erect, he would have been more than six feet tall, but he could not stand erect. The remains of his long and difficult life appeared to be contained in the torn and tattered knapsack strapped to his hunched back, and the two overstuffed WalMart bags held in his swollen, weathered hands.
Leaning on one crutch, he stood, precariously, in the center of the train station. I watched as he inhaled deeply, an effort, or so it seemed, to gather what little strength he could and then, one half-step at a time, he made his way to the man behind the plexiglass window.
I couldn’t hear a word that passed between them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him and, as I watched, a movie began to play in my head – an old movie of a ten-year-old boy playing baseball on a golden summer day, many, many summers ago. I saw him swing his bat, connecting with a blistering fast ball and sending it deep into center field. His teammates cheered as he rounded the bases with ease, smiling from ear-to-ear. As he crossed home plate, he looked up into the bleachers, searching for that one special face that would shine will paternal pride. Before he found it (did he ever find it?), the conversation at the plexiglass window ended and the broken man who had once been a ten-year-old, baseball-loving boy, began a slow, half-step at a time trek across the train station waiting room.
The man behind the plexiglass held up three fingers as I approached him. “That’s the third time today that he’s been here” he said. “What does he want?” I asked. “Each time it was the same thing – did I know of a restaurant where he could get something to eat. Some woman found him wandering around WalMart and brought him here. She said she thought I could do something for him. I don’t know what she thought I could do, I mean, I’m just the Amtrak ticket guy. I’m here all alone so what did she think I could do?” He didn’t know, but I think he wished that he did.
I bought my train ticket, and, as I turned toward the middle of the room, I saw another man standing beside the first. Younger and slightly less broken, though obviously on the same painful path as the first, and there they stood, side-by-side, silent in their brokenness. Without conscious thought or premeditation, I opened my wallet, and when I did, I was overwhelmed by an energy that seemed to be coming from the cash within. It pulsed – it felt alive – and I swear I heard it say “I don’t belong here”. I’m not sure that was what those bills were actually saying, but I do know that the minute I saw them I knew I wasn’t meant to keep them.
I pulled out three twenty-dollar bills and approached the two men. Holding the money at waist-height in front of the knapsacked man, I interrupted his staring contest with the floor, but he didn’t seem to notice. The second man gently touched his shoulder and said “She’s trying to give you some money, man!”. Slowly, one inch at a time, a hand more swollen and bruised than any I had ever seen – the skin and nails blackened with the accumulated filth of countless dumpster dives – reached up and cautiously, tenuously, accepted what was being offered. “Get something to eat and a room to sleep in, please” I said, softly. In a voice broken by time and tragedy he asked “How much is it?”, as he folded the three bills once, twice, three times, then stuffed the perfectly folded square of cash into a pocket of his worn-out pants.
“It’s three twenty-dollar bills – sixty dollars” I answered. His head seemed to bob once, or twice, (a response to my answer, or an affliction? I haven’t a clue), and with his eyes never leaving the floor, he hobbled, one half-step at a time, toward the door. “What’s your name?” the second man asked. “That doesn’t matter” I said.
As I stood, rooted to the floor of that train station, watching those two broken men make their painful way out of the building, I felt something I cannot name. I may never know its name, but that too doesn’t matter. The only thing of which I was certain, in that ironic moment, in that train station, was that I hadn’t given that man something that belonged to me – I had given him something that probably would have been his some yesterday ago, before his life went so tragically off the…tracks.
—Y.Not?! (aka Brooke Jones)