street encounters
or there but for the grace of god...

September 27, 2001

Today's Starting Pitcher:
Hideo Nomo

Today's Reading:
The Unveiling of Lhasa by Edmund Candler

This Year's Reading:
2001 Book List

I only had about $1.85 in my pocket when I left work for Central Square tonight for my meeting. My first order of business after finding a parking space was therefore to walk to the Fleet ATM (so as to avoid extra fees, which have begun to add up) for a spot of cash to cover dinner, possible used book purchase at Rodney's, and, of course, a voluntary contribution. There are two ATMs on Mass Ave between the street where I parked my car and the Fleet ATM.

Each ATM on Mass Ave has a homeless person or other panhandler of its own. I don't know if they meet and divide up the territory or it's just some sort of unspoken agreement. Anyway, they don't usually encroach on each other's ATM customer pickings.

I manage to pass ATM 1 without being asked for money and without even making eye contact.

At ATM 2, the usual guy is sitting there on the sidewalk with a dirty paper cup for spare change. Tonight he is wrapped in a blanket and rocking rhythmically back and forth. He stops rocking and looks up at me long enough to ask if I have any spare change. I put the approximately 85 cents from my pocket into the dirty paper cup and say "God bless you." He answers "God bless you" and resumes rocking.

At the Fleet ATM a homeless woman stands outside the door selling Spare Change. I am fully prepared for her to ask me if I want to buy a copy and I remember that I still have a dollar in my wallet. Instead, she asks me the time. "Seven o'clock," I answer. Instead of saying thanks, she tells me: "I wasn't going to ask you for money because I saw you give to him. He can't live in the shelter it's too restrictive. Some people...." I don't catch the rest of her spiel because she is talking very fast. It has to do with God and how he's going to take away her suffering some day. I leave her without buying the paper and enter the ATM.

There's a line as usual. There are 2 ATM units in this enclosure so it should go fast. Then I notice that at one of them a drunk is mumbling incoherently into that phone they have for contacting the bank if it eats your ATM card or something. To be truthful, at first I thought he was speaking a foreign language and was just a lost foreigner. Hah. He talks and mumbles and talks and mumbles, sometimes nodding as if in agreement with whoever he's talking to on the phone. I mean it looks for all the world like he's having a real telephone conversation.

Suddenly I am at the front of the line. One unit is in use by the person who had been in front of me in line. I look up to see if the weird guy is still on the phone. We make eye contact. I smile at him involuntarily. A half friendly, half nervous awkward smile. He hangs up the phone and takes a step toward me. He smells strongly of alcohol. He reeks of alcohol. A person could get a buzz off his breath. He stands between me and the ATM mumbling something I mostly don't catch. Then he says, perfectly intelligibly and unmistakably, "I know you. I know you from the AA meeting." "No you don't" says I. He insists it is so, but I have never seen, heard, nor smelled this man ever before in my life.

The customer in line behind me asks whether I am going to use the ATM or not. I step around the drunk, saying "excuse me" and step up to the ATM. He follows me. While I get my money, he hovers over my shoulder exhaling fumes I'm afraid would ignite if anybody walked in with a cigarette. The smell of alcohol is making me nauseous. He finally walks away, lies down on the floor and mumbles at the ceiling. As I leave he says something about knowing me and something about AA.

Back outside on the street, the woman selling Spare Change asks me the time again. I tell her it's 5 after 7:00 and hand her a dollar for a copy of the paper. She starts telling me how grateful she is that her experience has given her a big heart.

The woman looks at the guy stretched out on the floor of the ATM. I tell her he's really really drunk and needs some help. She tells me the police will be around shortly and we should let him sleep it off until they come to tell him to move on. I suppose the shelter is too restrictive for him too.

My heart feels small. I am shaking.


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Copyright © 2001, Janet I. Egan