I stared at the bum and, reaching down, pushed at his shoulder. “What do you mean ‘CRAP’? You mean you want to be dead?” I asked.
The elderly corpse wannabe sat up again and glared at me. “‘course I do!” he shot out and lay back down with a small splash. The dirty water streaming over the rough cement parted and flowed around his prostrate body, disappearing through the cast iron grate that supported his slipper clad feet.
“Hey! Wait a minute,” I glanced nervously around to see if we were being watched. I didn’t relish the thought of being associated with this crackpot but I just couldn’t walk off and leave him laying there. He looked old enough to be my grandpa. I loved my grandpa and wouldn’t want him to be left in a similarly sorry state by someone else.
“You can’t stay there,” I said, flapping my arms up and down in frustration.
“Don’t see why not. Ain’t a law against it, is there?” he answered without opening his eyes or moving a muscle. His cracked, pouty lips barely moved; but I could see his grizzled jaws working in the stark yellow white glare of a streetlight.
I reached down again to grab his arm and try to pull him upright. “C’mon mister. You can’t stay here. You’ll die of pneumonia, or, or something. Now, c’mon let me help you up,” I pleaded.
The old man pushed at my arm with one gnarled hand, his knuckles badly distorted by some form of arthritis, I supposed.
I let go of his arm and crossed mine as I stood upright again. The rain fell with increasing intensity. I watched for an instant, marveling at his lack of response to the large cold drops bursting on his closed eyelids and running down the sides of his cheeks, the streams of water disappearing in the fog colored, stringy, matted underbrush of hair that protruded out from under his soggy felt hat.
“If you don’t get up and come with me, I’m going to call the police.” I felt like a scolding mother struggling with an irascible child, and at the same time, ashamed at my tone, knowing I had been brought up to speak more respectfully to my elders.
“Go ‘head. ‘Don’t care,” he growled back.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked. I thought I’d try a different tack.
“Nope. Ate already,” he grunted.
“Wouldn’t you like a cup of coffee?” I asked, starting to wonder why I didn’t just join the rest of humanity and continue on my way.
“Nope,” he said.
“Don’t you like coffee? I’m buying,” I said, unable to keep the irritation out of my voice. I was getting wet too, and I still had an appointment to keep.
“Why not?” There was an international coffee house right on that corner, I noticed earlier, and now I badly wanted an espresso.
“Makes me pee,” he said.
I stared at his worn soaked clothing and wondered what difference that would make.
“Do you live around here?” I asked.
“Ain’t gonna say,” he muttered.
“Why not?” I was about to the end of my rope.
“You’ll make me go back there,” he said, sounding more and more churlish.
“And where would ‘there’ be?” I asked, experiencing the first rays of hope for a successful conclusion.
“Ain’t gonna say,” he stated again in a matter of fact voice.
I shrugged and started to walk away and I heard his voice call out, this time sounding weary, wet, worried. “At the home,” he said.
“What?” I turned around, startled to see the elderly soaked senior sitting up in the gutter.
“Over there,” he pointed toward a large darkened structure taking up the better part of the next block north of us. There were few lights on in the lower levels of the building and few cars in the parking lot.
“Well, why don’t we go back there? I’ll walk with you if you like,” I said, feeling relieved at the willingness to cooperate.
Much to my surprise, the old man stood shakily to his feet. I reached out to steady him as he nodded and attempted to step up on the sidewalk. “Need to take my pills,” he mumbled through lips turning slightly blue in the pale artificial light.
I wrapped my arm around his narrow fragile shoulders and lifted slightly to help him negotiate the step up to the sidewalk and we started slowly down the street.
As we stepped through the door of the ‘home’ I understood more clearly. The pale stark glare of the dim lobby lights highlighted the bored listless faces of the occupants who completely ignored us. The interior of the ‘home’ smelled strongly of urine, unlaundered linen, a strange mixture of coffee and stale cigarette smoke and too-sweet perfume. A water line that had broken some time in the past had sent a stream of dirty water cascading down the rough cement walls, staining in two separate streaks as it parted to flow around a long since departed form placed against the wall, disappearing through a cast iron grate set in the floor. Human forms, covered in one extent or another with dirty, stained, threadbare blankets, sat slouched in wheelchairs staring blankly off in the distance, gazing wistfully at vistas no one could see but themselves.
I fought the urge to vomit and glanced around the dingy room for someone to help us. Attendants were visible coming and going, carrying the odd tray of medicines and implements of one sort or another. No one ventured to ask if they could help us, even get the old man a blanket. I stared at the anonymous crowd and felt anger mount like a sudden storm in the pit of my stomach. I scooped an unused blanket off an empty wheelchair, wrapping it around the old man and turning him gently toward the door.
“C’mon. Let’s go get a cup of coffee. I’m buying,” I said. His mouth gaped open in a toothless grin as I led him out to the street and home.