The world was cruel and cold and unforgiving. He had very little. What he had was worn and worthless and dirty, and he had to fight for every tiny bit of it – for every pathetic bit of what he had, and he had next to nothing.
A tanned, manicured hand with a delicate gold bracelet reached out of a Ferrari window at the stoplight across from the front gate of the college and held out a five dollar bill. A five dollar bill!
He had to fight for the right to claim this piece of grass as his territory. This lousy, dirty, dusty median on a busy city street with cigarette butts and vodka bottles and the occasional piece of clothing or piece of a weave. He fought for this.
He stepped into the lane with a deliberate motion so as not to startle or frighten, without too much eye contact. Reached for the five dollar bill and held it until she released it. She smiled up at him. He blessed her. The engine revved and they were off. The girl and her driver who would never have to fight for anything as repugnant as this ugly piece of real estate.
A student was motioning to him from across the street. He looked into the oncoming traffic, timing his departure from his curb. He probably wanted to give him a couple of dollars. He motioned that he was on his way and the student waited, looking down at his phone.
He arrived across six lanes of traffic barely affected by an insult hurled from a dusty pickup truck full of scaffolding and construction materials. “Get a life.”
Get a life. He had a life. He was all too aware of the life he had.
He didn’t miss a stride kept his hands buried in his pockets even as he crossed the boulevard. From the other side he surveyed his pathetic island of grass scanning for incoming intruders. He was standing on private property. He had been repeatedly been warned about this.
Threatened that if he insisted on coming on private property the law would be summoned.
He was asked if he understood and he nodded his head ashamed at having just been scolded. He said he understood but he really didn’t. He didn’t understand how anyone could own a building or even a part of a building, even one of the brass door handles on the university’s heavy wooden doors. He couldn’t imagine how someone could own, say, a parking lot or a sprawling school like this one. He knew a secret way to the bathrooms in the basement of one of the buildings, and he knew when the halls were mostly empty.
The student was still on his phone communicating with someone and now he looked eager to speak to the man. He knew that some students really enjoyed donating their parent’s money. The student reached into his pocket and produced some ones.
Hey, I see you out here every day. And I wanted to run an idea by you. I’m a business major and I have an idea you might not have thought of. I’m kind of an idea guy, he admitted, as though apologizing a little for his budding brilliance.
The student continued without being invited to. The student set down his pack and unzipped it and pulled out cardboard folded in half. He unfolded it and handed it to the man. He held it and smiled proudly before unveiling his masterpiece.
My theory is you don’t want to beg for money. My theory is that people naturally want to work They want to be productive members of society, but they don’t know how.
There is enough trash on that little piece of turf that I see you pacing on everyday, that I’m sure you, Mr. Homeless Person, defend as “yours” forcing other beggars to inhabit less desirable skid rows. That if you thought about yourself and your place in the most immediate world you would realize that if you replaced your not too original “Homeless… anything helps” sign with this little beauty, you could make a killing.
He unfolded the signage that he offered as a replacement. Bright white paint on dark brown cardboard apparently chosen for its durability visual contrast. It was nicely crafted, he’d grant that to the student. He read it.
“I’m cleaning up this street for you. Donations are appreciated.”
The student explained that the people with the money would be so impressed with your resourcefulness that they would not only reach deeper into their pockets, but that they would probably offer to take your hand, offer you a boost to the next level. Just like I’m doing.
Just like you’re doing? he asked the student. Boosting me to the next level?
It’s called “re-messaging” they used to call it “rebranding” but it’s re-messaging now, and it works.
He looked down at his own sign. It was pathetic and crumbled and barely legible. But it was honest. He wanted to throw the cardboard the same way he wanted to throw down a prayer card or a half-eaten sandwich when it was handed to him in traffic. But he never did that. Not in front of someone who handed it to him. Even if they were handing him an insult. Even when he had been spit on, he never reacted in any other way that the way he reacted to that student.
He turned and realized that a vulture was getting ready to land on his dirty peninsula of grass and concrete. A skinny black crow moved toward his backpack, hoping it had been forgotten about. Hey, not there. Not there! Mine. Get!
He rushed across six lanes of traffic waving off the intruder.
He turned and noticed that the student had walked on. He imagined him pleased with himself. He almost flung the sign down, but remembered the quality of the materials. It might be worth something. It might be used to light a fire or to keep something dry. He tucked the sign into his own backpack to be considered later.
He paced the median for the rest of that afternoon thinking of what the student had pitched him. “I’m cleaning up this strip of dirty city sidewalk… for you. Donations appreciated.” There certainly was a lot to clean up on this strip of median. There was some pathetic grass unable to grown because of his daily pacing. But mostly he noticed as he walked the rest of the day, there was dust, a condom, plastic vodka bottle, candy wrappers. He had never really looked at the variety of the trash.
He had never really considered the nature of this microcosm. The ugliness of it had made him feel bad for the year since he had witnessed its previous tenant step into traffic. He crossed the street and even stood in front of traffic after the driver sped away. He stood over the median’s previous tenant and comforted him. And when they loaded him in the ambulance he handed the paramedic’s the injured man’s pack. Bless you, he told the man.
Location, location, location.
He had sized up that median in relation to passing and stopping traffic. It was a good part of town. An educated part of town.
But now, without even realizing it at the time, he was thinking bigger. Sure there was trash here, but there was even more across the street where it had blown and collected against a construction fence. As far as he could see in every direction there was trash that had been invisible to him earlier that morning when he arrived to claim his piece of real estate as he had done for a year.
But now he had a feeling, a hopeful feeling. Tonight he would take a good long look at the sign.