Rated: E · Short Story · Community · #787495
She met a homeless man, but she didn't see, not at first.
Homeless in the City
Everyday through November and into the icy days of December, I walked by the same blind, homeless person. He sat on the cold concrete, an empty cup held out, his hand covered by an old scrap of blanket. I'd always drop a coin for him to hear, and a bill for him to buy something with. Then I'd pat his dog and move on.
Freddy learned my step and called out my name as I approached, always saying it like it was a prayer.
The dog knew me, too, for I’d started bringing him scraps. With a heavy thumping of his wagging tail, he always managed to give me a hearty welcome, though he never budged from his master's side.
They say a city wears cold like a jacket; it's bundled up, solitary. People rush by, their thoughts on business or getting home, their mittens and warm scarves protecting them from the elements, other people, and from seeing things the way they really are. I may have stopped and called that man Freddy, petted his dog and slipped a five into his cup, but I didn’t really see him.
Then one day when I was baking cookies for the office party and preparing a salad to take to a different party, Freddy’s face dropped into my consciousness. I saw him, really saw him -- he and his friendly dog sitting there on the sidewalk as snow brought the bitter winds of winter.
I finished the salad, covered it and placed it into the refrigerator, then started making some eggnog, but Freddy came again. I blinked and shook my head. I swear I even heard his dog, Bugle Boy, barking.
Call it overload. Call it not enough sleep. Call it anything you like. But for the first time, I saw Freddy.
I slammed my feet into boots, bundled up -- mittens, hat, and muffler, and I walked back to my office building. I don’t know what I expected to see there. It was night. There was no reason for Freddy to be sitting with his outstretched tin cup in hand. But I expected him to be there, right where I'd always seen him.
I slipped on some ice and almost dropped the box of cookies I was bringing to him. That’s when it hit me how stupid I was. Freddy needed cocoa and a warm sleeping bag. He didn’t need my silly cookies.
Starbucks was across the street. I darted in and warmed my face. I plunked down a five and breathed in the hot, sweet smell of a double mocha. I sat by the window, staring out at the falling flakes. I groaned, just realizing I’d made the trip for nothing, and I still had to walk back in the bitter cold.
A man in a red suit -- a Santa suit -- except without the beard, hat and padded stomach, sat down across from me. Starbucks was crowded, but there was an empty seat over on the right. He could have sat there. I didn’t say anything, though. I just kept staring out at the billowing whiteness.
“You won’t see Freddy sitting at his spot, not on a night like this,” the man said.
“What?” I asked, coming out of the brain fog I’d fallen into.
“Freddy, you know . . . the old homeless man you stop and talk to every day.”
“How do you know that?” I blurted, furious at the guy's invasion of my privacy. I threw my muffler around my neck in preparation for departure.
“I’m sorry,” the man said quickly. “Of course, you don’t know who I am. Freddy talks about you all the time, so I feel like I know you, but of course, I don’t. Sorry. I’m rambling, aren’t I?”
That sick feeling you get inside your stomach when you’re endangered -- right before you get mad about it – that feeling was hitting me pretty hard. This guy sounded wacky. I wanted out of there, double mocha, or not. I grabbed my mittens and hat and started to rise. The guy stood up, towering.
“Listen, I can see I’ve got you scared. Let me show you my driver’s license, my Santa registration, my Certified Sane Card.”
That brought my eyes up to his. I laughed. In fact, I laughed so hard, I almost spilled my double mocha. I set it down and said, “All right. Show me.”
The Santa guy pulled out his wallet and flashed some cards at me. Jared Crespy, part-time volunteer for the Homeless Shelter Santa Brigade, full-time detective for the city police department. He stopped flipping the plastic dividers as he reached his American Express Card. “Here it is, my Certified Sane Card,” he said, chuckling.
There was something in the sparkle of Jared’s eyes, in the way his dimples danced when he laughed. I relaxed. I put my mittens and hat down and slid back onto my stool. Then we talked and we smiled into each other's eyes. We traded stories and shared our knowledge of Freddy and Bugle Boy, and finally, at least an hour later, we arranged to meet same time, same place, next evening.
It was late. I pulled on my winter woolies – the mittens, muffler and hat, and said my goodbyes. I got as far as the door before Jared caught up with me.
“You forgot your box,” he told me, handing me the package with Freddy’s cookies.
I shook my head. “They weren’t for me. Could you give them to Freddy? I mean, if you’re going over to the shelter . . .
“Cookies, huh? What’s in it for me?”
It was so unlike Jared, or at least what I’d thought I’d learned about him. I stared up at him in shock. Then I saw his sparkling eyes.
“Caught you,” he said, touching my arm. “Look! Mistletoe. See it up there? I have to kiss you, don’t I?”
Corny, I know, but I laughed. It wasn’t a great kiss. It was brief and very public. I headed out into the street with a face as hot as an iron.
I wish I could tell you there was a happy ending to my tale. Sometimes stories go like that. Sometimes they don’t. Freddy made it through Christmas, but then he got pneumonia. I brought him presents, and he unwrapped them, smiling his toothless smile. But he died two days before New Years. At least, in the hospital bed, he was warm and well-fed.
Bugle Boy came to live with me after that, and so did Jared. And on the cold concrete where Freddy used to sit, a new homeless man has started coming. Jared and I are trying to help him get a job and find shelter, and we've vowed to change the city from its solitary coldness, one person at a time by making Christmas a year-round project.