I guess I was 14 when I had my greatest epiphany about human nature. Sitting on the steps of a gas station across the street from my childhood home in west Baltimore, I spotted a man wearing a purple coat walking down the other side of Baker Street. He carried with him a sack of cans, tied around the beltloop of his left side. Now, as old as I was, I had never really seen a homeless person before. Never talked to one. Never even thought twice about what it meant to be without a place to go. So, it shocked even me when I ran across Baker to flag down the complete stranger.
“Hey!” I call after him, staring at the man walking away from behind for no more than 10 seconds, no less than 5. Upon closer inspection, the coat that I had thought of as merely purple, was actually more of a light indigo and judging from the delicate yellow stitching on the back wasn't a man's coat, but a woman’s. Meh, bum culture is more accepting of such things.
The man doesn’t move, his body language doesn’t even suggest he heard me calling to him. Either that, or he doesn’t have many people calling to him. He gimps down the sidewalk, edging nearer to the curb. His afflicted leg makes it easy for me to catch up. In a series of starts and stops, I wrestle with the urge to flag this guy down or just let him go on his way.
I try again, from only about 10 feet away this time, “Hey!” I can now make out that the stitching forms a bouquet of yellow flowers. Wilted from the wear and exposure to the elements a bum’s coat would typically undergo, but recognizable nonetheless. His hair, greasy and unkempt, sticks out from underneath a grey fedora. A regular Goodwill fashion model this guy is.
The man keeps walking. Same course. Same pace. Not even a flinch in my direction. What the hell is this guy’s problem? I’m fucking trying to reach out to this worthless piece of shit. I’ve never seen a goddamn bum in my life before and I just want to ask him something. I want to know what the hell happened to him. Was it alcohol? Was it dope? Was it just a series of bad decisions? What is it in life that I have to avoid to not end up walking down Baker Street and having nosey kids follow me from here to there? I want to know his name and for fuck’s sake I want to know why he’s wearing a lady’s coat.
Anger, the kind that comes from being ignored, starts to resonate through my body. It wells up from my feet and shoots out the top of my head. My face red, I extend my fingers to pick up a small marble chunk lying on the surface of the sidewalk. I rear back and throw. It hits the man square in the back of his head, knocking the grey fedora to the ground. Surely he would turn around now, I would promptly scold him for ignoring me earlier, and finally some sort of acknowledgement and resolution to the whole scenario would come about.
Nothing. The man continues to walk. I come to the fedora on the ground and snatch it from the curb. Dusting it off, more out of habit, than of anything else, I place it on my head.
I pick up another rock. A bigger one this time. I don’t throw it right away, taking time to study its jagged edges and tiny black pores. This rock is going to hurt. Not like the other rock, that was more of a warning rock. This rock, this rock could kill the poor bastard. No one blows me off though. I wouldn’t let my best friend get away with it, so why would I let some street person show me up.
The rock leaves my hand and heads straight for the eye of one of the yellow flowers on the back of the man’s coat…er, lady’s coat. It tears a small hole extending from the pistil to the tip of one of the petals. Sensing the imperfection, but not acknowledging the source, the man sheds the purple coat with yellow flowers. It falls to the sidewalk and my eyes shift to it and only it. I stare at the torn flower for a good 10 seconds before looking back to find the man, only he’s no longer there. His cans lay about fifteen yards in front of me.
The streetlights buzzing tell me it's dusk and time for me to get home before mom starts to worry. I grab the coat, slide my arms through its armholes, and retrieve the sack of cans. Fashioning a knot in the garbage bag, I tie it to my beltloop. I start walking and from behind hear, “Hey!”