He sat cross-legged on the cement, up against the brick façade between suites of a strip mall, a frozen yogurt shop on his right and a trash can on his left beside the entrance to an AT&T store. Fatigues, calling on war veteran sympathies. An off-white rucksack was drawn nearly into his lap.
At least six months unkempt, and the irony of a hair salon chain store three doors down with a $7.99 special. His black beard showed his habit of tugging it at the chin where it was shorter, more frazzled yet less dirty than his black hair.
People coming from his right could see him clearly, green camouflage useless against the urban backdrop. One woman diagonaled across the backsides of seven parked cars to avoid eye contact.
I crossed straight to the sidewalk, past a Little Ceasar’s Pizza, the Great Clips salon, and the frozen yogurt shop. He seemed surprised that I saw him, was looking into his face. He furled and unfurled his corrugated cardboard sign, you know, with the black permanent marker message. All I could see was the briefness of the marker between the motions of his hands.
“Not a good time of year for this is it?”
“I really just need a cigarette….” He rambled on.
“I don’t smoke. I’m sorry.”
He mumbled quick, halting words, “Yeah, I should probably quit anyway, right….” He continued his monologue even as I entered the AT&T store.
I had drowned my cell phone two days prior.
The warmth and noise in the small space were startling. Nine employees, one who took my name and Sandra D. appeared on the far wall’s monitor. Five customers exited at once. I felt my bodily tension drop five points.
A man named Cory took care of all the details and escorted me to the door. We had a brief commentary on weather, long enough for two ladies from the Starbuck’s café next door to walk past us then veer from the sidewalk onto the pavement.
The homeless man’s query was now a statement of desperation. There was no recognition in his eyes that we had spoke on the subject minutes before. I repeated that I do not smoke.
His monologue became more rapid, incomprehensible. My inclination was to offer him a hair wash-and-cut in exchange for the pack of cigarettes he wanted.
Instead, I called my husband from the new cell phone and watched through the mirrors as the homeless man, rucksack in tow, checked the ash trays and the top layer inside every garbage container along the strip. I never did discover what his sign read.
On parallel streets out of the shopping center were two more homeless men with familiar cardboard signs, sitting on cold cement sidewalks.
©2012 Sandra Davidson