Friday, April 12, 2013

"Big Lessons in the Big City" by Calvin Wintertown

           Rain makes it’s way down the window pane of the city bus. It pitter-patters in abstract patterns creating a melted, tie-dye distortion of the images beyond the glass. New York City traffic has never been bearable on even the best of days, but today in the steady rain, I’d be better off walking to the subway station. The risk of being hit by cars seems to be significantly diminished as everything has gone to a near standstill. At the next stop, I pry my umbrella from underneath the seat after donning my cold, dampened trench coat, and proceed to disembark from the wheezing, metal beast and step onto the sidewalk. As I make my way down the street, those who rush past me splash water onto my trousers, but I continue to stomp on in my soaked wool socks. No time for petty things now, I’ll be late for my business meeting. The grey and gloomy tint to everything around keeps me thinking about how much my life currently sucks: Cubicle job, awful hours (albeit decent pay), and a lingering, incessant awareness of how stuck I am here in this towering metropolis filled with people who came here because they were lost, like me; looking for success in the one place where it seemed guaranteed. The vicious cycle of the city has taken me captive, and I’ll be eagerly awaiting for the day that it ends. I’m about two blocks from the station when I’m stopped by the harsh sound of jingling pocket change. Beyond the white noise of people talking and clamoring on the sidewalk, I hear the calling of a man about 30 feet away. He’s obviously homeless, as you tend to see here. You pass them with only a glance, if even that, so often that after awhile they all look the same: Grey beard, tattered jacket, working boots, maybe a knit hat, or a circa-1996 baseball cap with the fingerless cycling gloves for that extra touch.
          As I approach him he asks if I’d like to spare any change. Usually, my time obsessive nature would never allow even a second’s delay on the way to work, time is money. However, I could use a boost of my karma today of all days, it hadn’t been going so well at all so helping out this poor guy ought to earn me some brownie points from the universe and whatnot. He thanks me and sends me a nice “God Bless.” As I’m about to continue toward the station, he stops me. Well great, as if I hadn’t wasted enough time already; he probably wants more change. I reach for my wallet to toss change into his coffee cup once again, not intending to stay.  Before I get out my change he makes a comment about my footwear, asking something about whether or not my socks get  wet while while I walk in the rain. Well, I mean yes, they do, but I’m more concerned about the leather of my good italian shoes. He chuckles and suggests that maybe I should wear some more “proper” footwear for days like this. Well, pardon me for not tramping around in old work boots that cover my ankles. I mean, I gave this guy change and he makes fun of my shoes in return? Homelessness is no excuse for classlessness in my book. As I’m about to give him a piece of my mind, he holds out a balled up pair of socks to me, surprisingly white and pristine for a pair thats been in a homeless guy’s pocket. I ask what he’s doing and he tells me that he’s offering me a new pair of socks. I ask why and the man says that I look like I’m having a bad day, and my socks must feel awfully uncomfortable in the soaking wet rain. To my amusement, he tells me not to worry, the socks are brand new and he stole them from a convenience store just the other day. I reminded him that he might need them but he matter-of-factly stated that he only really needs the pair he has, he can wash them in a restroom sink somewhere if need be. The extra pair was just a luxury he took on a whim.
          A 2nd pair of socks being a luxury?
        I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel like a selfish idiot. God knows how many socks I’ve owned in my lifetime. Hundreds? Thousands? Hell, I wouldn't be surprised. I’ve bought a pair of socks for every drop of rain that fallen on the city, most likely. He urges me to take the socks and I do, the train being in the back of my mind, and he chuckles one last time saying that I have no reason to frown today for two reasons: 1. I just got a free pair of socks, 2. I’m not him.
          Well, isn’t that fantastic, instead of getting rewarded by the gods of karma for my good deed, I end up getting guilt tripped by the one random homeless guy I’ve stopped on the street for.          Should've taken the bus.
          Thankfully despite all of that nonsense, I make it to my meeting on time. Soaking wet, but on time. The meeting is dull and uninteresting as my life tends to be; I can't even remember what’s being discussed: Bonds? Stocks? My attention is set on that man I met on the sidewalk, I have his socks in my bag and I can remember the street he was sitting on. Beyond all better judgement, I go to the store and pick up a little something and find my way to that area of the sidewalk on Broadway. Who even knows if he’s still there? These people tend to move around like termites in a floorboard. But luckily, I spy those workbooks on crossed legs on the sidewalk. I walk up to him and he greets me immediately, smile and all. He strikes up a conversation with me asking if I made the meeting; I have nowhere to be at the moment so I oblige. We chat for a good 20 minutes, or maybe 40, before he stands and says he needs to get to the shelter for dinner. He wishes me a good evening and props up his tiny luggage case. Before he can even take a step I apologize, I don’t know what for exactly; most likely for coming off as a rude, selfish, business clown who takes everything for granted. I tell him that I appreciate his kindness, and I hand him the parcel I grabbed from the store: 8 Pairs of warm, wool socks. He gives his trademark chuckle and waves his hand in denial.               
           I’m in shock. Why would he deny something he obviously needs? It’s clear to me that the man only now has 1 pair of socks, and the rain has been going on for 2 or so days now. He claims that he really meant it when he said the one pair was fine. He says that if it makes me feel better, the extra pairs would take up space in his bag. He tells me that he doesn't mind his appearance, his possessions (or lack thereof), and his life for that matter. As unglamorous as it is, it’s usually stress free, he gets his meal from the shelter if he gets in line early enough, and he can usually find enough scraps of paper to jot down poetry or notes in his spare time. If not, he has all the time in the world to think, reflect, and contemplate the beauty around him. He asks me if I’ve ever been to central park. There’s a huge rock on the east side, according to his description, that’s on the water and perfect for looking past the bush and at the city. Come to think of it, the park has always been out of my way, it’s not on the way to work, therefore there’s no reason to visit despite the years I've been here. He suggests that I make a visit once the rain lets up, and he gives me a final “Good evening” before he departs for dinner. Standing there with a pack of socks in my hand and another pair in my pocket, I watch the man I’ve become acquainted with disappear down the sidewalk. After that episode, I head to my apartment. I sit at the dinner table, sipping some old coffee and staring at the pack of socks. I can’t help but wonder where or if I’d see that man, but if I do I’d make him take the dumb things. I can’t look at them without being riddled with guilt and concern and overall self-criticism. Today,  I met a man with a pure zest and and passion for life in its purest form. The simple act of survival every day this far is considered a success for him. He has some god-given ability to remain content with being at the bottom of the social ladder, a place where money and dignity are nonexistent. To him, finding some scraps of paper to write on and getting at least one hot meal is considered a good day. Well don’t I feel blessed; I get grumpy when I have to wait in line for too long for my brunch time coffee. All I can do is feel ashamed of what my life has consisted of so far: Regard for myself and zero for others.  I can’t even remember the last time i purchased a birthday present for someone let alone a stupid card! All this time I’ve been here, I’ve wanted to move up, be the boss, make something of myself;  but people can be successful if they aren’t respected or appreciative of the little things in life,  suppose.Well that’s surely  something to think about. My angst doesn’t last much longer as my phone rings. It’s a coworker asking if I could come in for a conference on Saturday. I decline to his dismay, suddenly having something more important to do that day.
       The freezing rain stopped Friday morning, and by Saturday the sun broke free from it’s shield of grey. The day’s weather had taken a pleasant turn since that rainy day a while back. Despite the fact that I’ve abandoned commuting by bus, I still haven’t seen the man since. But it seems as though my good deed has been rewarded. I learned a lot from that homeless guy, and now I tend to enjoy the little things more, and just life as a whole. If he can be happy where he is in life, then I may as well have a giant smile plastered on my face all the time.  So instead of saturday afternoon conferences, I tend to spend my time like I am now; Sitting  by the water on a rock in eastern central park, notepad in one hand, pen in the other, wearing a pair of durable and rugged work boots with a pair of pristine, white socks. 

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