It was a slow day, and for good reason. November rain drummed down on the streets of the city, sluicing through gutters and filling the air with the gentle scent of soaked concrete. The only people out in such weather had good reasons for braving the cold; they walked with heads ducked and collars turned, single-mindedly hurrying towards their destinations. Few of them stopped to consider a scruffy beggar huddled beneath the mediocre shelter of a bus stop, even when waiting under the same alcove for transportation.
It was hardly surprising. I was under the shelter because it kept off the worst of the rain, not because I expected coins. It had just seemed rather silly not to put down the tin, you know? Besides, there’s something to be said for taking a while to watch people go by, their stories trailing behind them like the ragged ends of an old cloak. While I might not have gotten enough change for a simple can of soup by the end of the day, I could hardly call the day a waste.
There were only four people who stopped that day. They are the four I remember.
The first was a pretty, middle-aged woman dressed in a business-like skirt and blouse. She walked confidently, her heels clicking neatly on the sidewalk and umbrella roaring beneath the weight of the rain. Her hands were neatly manicured, and aside from her shoes she was completely dry; this wasn’t a woman who’d let anything touch her, least of all rain.
This woman slowed to a stop in front of me, close enough for me to catch the barest whiff of her perfume. I could only assume she could smell my own in return; her shapely nose stayed wrinkled in disgust. She stood at precisely the right point to send the water cascading from her umbrella straight onto me, at first. The rain soaked through my thin jacket in seconds, running in frigid rivulets down my face and stomach, but she didn’t pay it much mind.
And that’s what left a sour taste in my mouth, as I cursed and shifted away from the water. Her lip curled before she tsked and turned sharply from me, her inspection complete. She didn’t care who I was, what I thought, or where I’d been, and it wasn’t because she hadn’t noticed me. She had stopped, acknowledged my existence… then decided it was unworthy and dismissed me. Just like that. Like I said; there’s no touching some people.
The second was a small, wiry man who could have been anywhere between forty and sixty. He was scruffy around the chin and had huge bushy eyebrows that nearly hid his alert eyes. He shuffled under the shelter with a nervous air and proceeded to chatter harmlessly at me in a rough-edged voice for a minute or two, hands shifting and movements quick and jerky. It didn’t take long for the scent of old smoke and stale sweat to tinge the air; his torn work-coat reeked of too many years of hard work with no soap. The beer bottle in his hand made frequent trips to his mustached mouth, yellow teeth flashing in an occasional strained smile.
Halfway through a rather ribald tale about his first and last night spent in a subway, he seemed to come to a decision; his hand darted towards the can at my feet and grubbed up the coins within. “Sorry, buddy,” he muttered, surging to his feet and dancing out of reach at my startled exclamation. There was a pained look to his eyes, not quite regretful but apologetic all the same. “Places to go, people to see, yannow?” Then he was out from under the overhang as quickly as he had come, disappearing into a bus that I hadn’t even seen arrive.
He left behind his half-full beer bottle and a grungy cigarette, forlorn recompense in the only currency the man had likely ever truly known. I rinsed out the layer of grime he’d left in my can with the beer, pocketed the cigarette, and begrudgingly tipped an imaginary hat towards the bus as it pulled away.
The third almost passed me by entirely; if it weren’t for the fact that I had set the can just outside of the edge of the shelter to let the rain rinse out the remnants of beer, the kid would have pelted past before I could see more of him than a confused blur. As it was, his outstretched foot landed on the edge of the can and it promptly slipped from beneath him. He went tumbling head over heel to the ground, fetching up against the post of the shelter with a clang.
This first impression, of whirling limbs just barely protecting his slight form and small, pained voice, remained true throughout the encounter. He was a painfully thin kid, sharp cheek bones jutting out beneath wide eyes and sodden hair. The kid had a stumbling voice, filled with frequent pauses as he searched for the next word in his embarrassed apology. His bare toes, now skinned and bleeding slightly, curled on the concrete as he scrounged through his pocket for a few lonesome coins. The results of his search were quickly dropped into the slightly dented can at his feet with a wet clang.
He took off like a shot before I’d found my voice again, I’m sorry to say. The coins in the bottom of the water in my can consisted of everything he’d had in his pockets, and his eyes had met mine directly. I can only hope that they said what I could not express through voice.
The fourth was an older woman, frazzled around the edges and carrying just a few too many things for comfort. She was bundled against the cold in a down-to-earth coat, a woolen scarf wrapped around her neck. Her cheeks were chapped from the wind, but her eyes were gentle and warm. Everything about her was warm, in truth, from her manner and voice to the scent of coffee and wet wool which hung around her. They almost completely masked the faint tang of disinfectant that lingered on the nurse’s uniform beneath her coat.
She spotted me shortly after exiting the bus that day, and as she approached she checked her pockets. It was obvious even from afar that she’d found nothing in them; I offered a wry smile and waved her on. But she stopped, shifting her thermos to one arm and checking her watch. Whatever she saw there prompted an irritated frown, but the smile she turned towards me was kind. Before I knew it she had settled down on the bench beside me, rummaged around in the paper bag she held in the same arm as her thermos, and offered me a slightly damp molasses cookie. It wasn’t long before the rain-water and coins had been poured from my can and replaced with a steaming portion of coffee, unsweetened but with just enough milk to cut the bitterness.
She stayed and talked for a good half hour, some of the strain clearing from her face as the conversation went on, and before she left she shook hands with me gladly. I watched her go, memorizing her form as I sipped slowly at the cooling dregs of coffee.
I never learned any of their names, and they never told me who they were or where they were going. And they never had to; sometimes I wonder if I’m not left with a more complete picture of a person for having known them so briefly. After all, they would never have to see me again, and so I guess they just didn’t bother with the usual masks. In the end, I can only hope that I managed to give all of them at least a fraction of something they needed, in exchange for their time–however brief.