On the shore, right where the sand trail ends and the parks begin, there is a grocery store. Next to the store, an old man sings songs in a language I don’t understand. He has a bowl full of coins. Whenever I come across him, I toss quarters in that bowl. He says thank you by lifting it up. He has never seen my face. I never remove my mask or the hat, but he still recognizes me from a distance. It’s the way he leans forward every time. He must have noticed the patterns on my mask. Or patterns in me and the way I walk; careless steps and a hunched back. I have to make a conscious effort to correct my posture. Roll my shoulders back, stand straight, walk with steady feet. I don’t know when I lose my focus and begin walking like an old man, but I lose it a lot. There are so many distractions around, so many precious moments to capture, so many antics at play.
I overhear a couple fight at a distance. As they ride past me, on a bike, slowly, halting to fight every now and then, the only words I hear the man say are, “I don’t know … I was really mad at the cocaine thing.” The woman touches her blueish right cheeks and swallows her words. They don’t worry about me people listening to them. They continue riding together, in parallel, until one of them takes a wrong a turn and they get separated by a big rock.
I see a teenager tilt her graduation hat and strike a pose. She yells at her mother for taking blurred photos of her. Her mother, calm and conscious, says she’ll try again. Several awkward moments pass in what feel like eternity. While the daughter’s face is stuck in a false candid state, the mother balances a phone that is smart and yet slow to feel the human touch, her daughter’s oversized purse and the entire academic worth in the form of papers. When she hands the phone back to her daughter, her daughter responds with a deep sigh and looks around for help. She glances over at me, I am ready to help but she doesn’t know that. She can’t read my expressions, she can’t see my face. She hands the phone to a boy who has a skateboard tucked under his armpit. He takes several pictures of her, from all the angles, with all kinds of poses and numerous combinations of the two. Until the girl thinks he has done too much for the day. While handing the phone back to her, he drops it in a puddle of water with wet leaves in it and wet shoe prints around it. He offers endless apologies to the girl, and the girl says, “no problem!” in a feeble voice but her face has turned red. The mother puts her hand on the girl’s back.
I stop for coffee at a stall, there’s a loud man sprawled over on a bench. He’s smoking a cigar, and playing loud music on a speaker. The music is so loud, I have to repeat my order thrice to the barista. The man with the speakers has people sitting next to him, all of them, clouded by the smoke coming out of his mouth. He speaks over everyone else and can’t seem to understand anyone over the sound of his own voice. Next to them is a young couple, in their mid twenties, each on their phone, passing a vaporizer back and forth. They are sharing the stick, but not the moments.
I am near the grocery shop again, the homeless man is still here, looking around, waiting for someone to drop some coins in the tiny bucket he has got today. Sometimes I don’t want to give him any money. Panhandlers, if not disabled, are often questionable. But by now, he knows me. He can tell it’s me from a distance. I still wonder how; I change clothes everyday and I don’t have an extra arm. Could it really be the walk? He knows me, and knows that I know, and that I almost feel obligated to give him the money. That if I did not pay him, I will carry those coins and the guilt from not giving those coins away with me. He always makes the eye contact almost shamelessly. Like a puppy, waiting for its puppy food. And sure it works. All of a sudden my pocket feels heavy. And I think to myself, what are quarters worth anyway?
There is a shawarma stall before the grocery store. I get two of those for myself. One I want to eat, the other I want to carry home. Put it in the fridge and forget about it until its flavors start permeating the desserts stacked in the neighboring shelves. But as I am paying the vendor, and collecting my change, I wonder if I should hand the extra shawarma to the homeless man. That would make me feel, in some strange way, better about myself. There is something better about feeding someone than giving them money to feed themselves. But, I am sure, the homeless guy, may have a different response. But I mean, what’s the end goal here anyway? If a man hasn’t got the roof over his head but clothes that can last for days, the only other thing he needs is the food. Right? So giving him money is like forcing him to do a little bit of physical labor. A little bit of looking around. So I must be doing the right thing. It is the shawarma and not the quarters for today.
But as I look him in the eye, he smiles and picks his bowl up. I wonder if he does that with everyone walking by? Stare at them until they make an eye contact, or is it just me? I extend my arm that has a shawarma wrapped in a silver foil. He takes the food from me but doesn’t lower his eyes. And there is a moment where his pupils widen, as if he just recognized who I am. He keeps the food aside, on the ground, right next to his boots that look like they probably have bed bugs in them. He still wants the quarters. Maybe he doesn’t want the food, just the money for drugs.