There once was a man who, by the cruel hand of fate, had no place to live. Robert was homeless, living on the corner of a large city; but how he had landed in such a place, Robert could not explain. He had simply been a passenger on a ride he called “life”; it felt like a roller coaster ride to him and he just jumped off. When Robert lost his family and then lost his fortune, he became tired: Tired of trying, tired of being away from what he loved, tired of dreaming dreams. He was certainly capable of rebuilding his life, but there was no reason to…he had lost everything that he had cherished. What was the point of rebuilding a house of cards just to have the wind blow it over like it never existed? Robert had a good heart but it had been severely broken and the scars of bitterness had darkened it. So here he was on the streets avoiding sobriety like the Black Death; content to stay numb with the helping hand of strangers and their dropping of coins. Since living on the streets, about 6 months by now, he prided himself on the fact that he had never asked anyone for anything. Robert had always been this way, and he stayed true to his creed. He had been a very successful entrepreneur and a generous family man. And he hadn’t asked anyone for anything. His fellow homeless travelers had actually come up with a phrase called “The Silent Robert”; it basically described sitting in the flow of human traffic, in complete silence all day long, and looking pitiful. The challenge was, according to Robert, that you couldn’t speak even one word all day! The guys noticed that the ruse (not a ruse with Robert) really worked. But it was still challenging enough that most failed, some because they just couldn’t be still enough and others because being almost passed out and unable to speak was disqualification…being drunk enough didn’t count. Plus, looking “sad” and looking “drunk” are somewhat similar but not close enough. So this is the life on the streets with Robert.
Robert was a crafty fellow and quick with his wits…even snockered, he managed to keep up with daily life regardless of the circumstances. He found a “dream home” in the spring around late March soon after arriving here on the streets. It was at the end of a 12-foot tall by 60-foot long tunnel that connected the park to the main sidewalk of a busy street. As a person exited the tunnel on the street side, there was a large oak tree that caused one to veer left or right to get to the thoroughfare; the large oak also visually blocked the view of the base of the tunnel from the street side. A perfect spot! He could avoid the cops by number one, not being able to be seen by the street patrols; and two, he could avoid the park patrol because it was rare that one of the lazy civil servants would make it “off the beaten path”. Every now and again, Robert had some close calls; he astutely realized early on to be very clandestine in his movements and deathly quiet after the sun had set. Robert also had every movement of the patrols during the day down to a science, so he simply knew where not to be. When money was scarce and the wine even scarcer, he could panhandle silently by simply sitting in the shade under a tree of his choosing and just relax. The park was nice and Robert enjoyed “people watching” anyway. So he learned very quickly how to survive and maintain his freedom. Robert did have a good heart, so every 3 or 4 days he would go see his fellow homeless mates. He would share whatever he had: food, wine, cigarettes, sometimes a little money, and what all lonely people loved…someone to listen to their stories. Robert never disclosed his “dream home” location (he rarely spoke to begin with); he would simply disappear silently while the others had passed out or fallen asleep…returning at his leisure to visit the guys when it occurred to him to do so.
Robert had manners as well. For instance, when young lovers would stroll through the tunnel back to the street, he would hide himself as to not startle them and ruin a “moment”. When children occasionally retrieved their Frisbees and balls from the tunnel, again he would hide…he didn’t want to scare them. So it was one day that Robert found himself in a pickle. Each day around 1:00pm, when the lunch crowd had returned to a simmer from a boil, he could usually get lucky with some fresh toss-offs from the folk that eat and walk simultaneously (he could never understand this phenomenon). There was a garbage can that sat under the oak on the street side; luckily, there are three delis just south of the can. As people moved back uptown from the lunch hour, he could usually score the last quarter of a sub or the last bite of a hotdog and sometimes leftovers from fried foods like chicken bits or French fries. This day he hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours and he was famished. As he emerged from his abode by removing the large branch he used for a camouflaged door, he slipped around the concrete base and noticed someone sitting at the foot of his tunnel reading a book. Robert withdrew and sat quietly waiting for this intruder to leave. But he would not! It must have been a full 45 minutes or so…doesn’t this guy need to get somewhere? Why is he in a frickin’ tunnel reading a frickin’ book? Robert mused to himself. My goodness, there were countless benches and shade trees and open lawns in the sun to enjoy. Get out of my tunnel; I’m starved…Damn it! But the man remained. Finally after what seemed to be an eternity, Robert emerged from his hiding place (there was only one way in and out) and pretended to be “just passing through”. But alas, his embarrassingly pitiful attempt was caught short by the man’s glance of only momentary surprise quickly washed over to a smile. Oh, well…Robert shot a quick look of courtesy-only and passed the man toward the street. When he nonchalantly shuffled to the edge of the garbage can, he took a quick gander at its contents. Hot damn! A wrapper from his favorite deli, Ginos, was bulging with at least a quarter if not almost a half of a sub. He looked around like he was observing the beauty of the buildings and slipped his hand into the can to retrieve his lunch. Just as he pulled it out and spun around as smooth as Fred Astaire back toward the park, it happened. He quite ran into the man face to face and it startled him so that he flinched, gasped, dropped his sandwich and involuntarily uttered a string of cursing that would rival any invented up to that point in history. The man had scared him to death! The man, who happened of course to be the same who read in his “hallway”, looked instantly apologetic.
“I am so sorry! Man, I feel so stupid…sorry!”
Robert just glared back at him in disgust.
“My name is Stephen, and…I…just wanted…I mean…I thought I would…long sigh…I know this sounds silly, but I just felt I had to give you this”, Stephen awkwardly said.
Robert noticed the outstretched hand with a 5 dollar bill tucked in the man’s palm. Stephen was clumsy, but at least he had the discretion to make the exchange on the down low. Robert looked at the five, looked down at his lost treasure from Ginos, looked at Stephen’s face, back to the five and made the choice to take this fellow up on his offer. As Robert shook the man’s hand and quickly retrieved the ransom, he noticed that the guy had a Bible tucked under his left arm. Oh, now it makes sense…this guy is doing the charitable thing…making a pitiful attempt to do a “good work”. Robert stopped for a second as he retrieved his hand from Stephen’s, and almost changed his mind. He almost gave the five back; but in his need, he just took the money. But not before glancing at the book and then shooting the guy a “poor bastard”-look. Robert began to make his way south toward the smell of fresh, warm food when he heard the man half-shout, “What’s your name?” Robert slowly wheeled around, looked straight at the man, and said, “Thanks”. That was it. Off he went to finally get a bite to eat. Later, Robert felt bad for treating this nice fellow so rudely; after all, wasn’t this lunch on his dime? Actually, there was $1.34 left from the five after his lunch…so he felt bad for being such an ass, but Stephen had caught him at a pointedly “bad time”: he had intruded Robert’s space, scared the s**t out of him, and caused him to drop his lunch. The guy owed it to him in some ways, but then Robert realized that the man had already decided to give him the five before he caused the commotion. So Robert felt bad about it no matter how he sliced it. He would apologize if he ever saw him again.
End of Chapter One
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