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Saturday, January 3, 2004
By Paul Ford
An old man came up to me; it was 1AM & I was waiting for a bus. “Hey,” he said.
“I'm reading my book,” I said, nose buried to see the letters in the yellow light.
“If I could have 35 cents for the bus...” Which I fished out from my wallet and presented. He carried a large clear plastic bag inside another clear plastic bag, and whatever the bags' contents were had dripped a slimy white fluid that flowed like a wave.
“I got all this chicken,” he said. “They were throwing it away,” and then the smell hit me: musty fried chicken, left out for hours on a warm, wet Thursday night. “I'm going to give it away.”
“That's a good haul,” I said.
“Oh, I'm lucky,” he said. And I was reminded of another old, indigent person, a woman at a shelter where I'd volunteered during a less busy, and less selfish era of my life. Parched orange skin, no teeth (heroin), and very little hair, 4 feet tall. She'd introduced herself with a strong handshake. “I'm Lucky,” she said.
It looks that way, I thought. I was pleased to meet her. The women at the shelter were fined a quarter every time they swore. They had no homes, they were at odds with their families, and many of them had been prostitutes and drug addicts, and they could not swear. Most of them were able to turn it off for the social workers, but one morning when the morning bus had taken them off, and I was left to sort out the beds I took a look at the swearing book, and there was Lucky's name with an inventory of her sins: countless F's and MF's (50 cents), S's (25 cents), D's (15 cents), and a few miscellaneous dimesworth's of profanity.
They were also not supposed to smoke, but after the social worker left the cloud would roll out from their door, the day's cadged cigarettes brought into play. It was none of my business.
One night as I lay half-asleep on my green cot and my rough, gray D.H.S. blanket, all of the women in the shelter began to scream, and the bathroom door began to swing open and shut. “Volunteer!” one of them yelled, but I pretended not to hear, and then I heard a repeated flushing of toilets.”
“It's some kind of fish! Some kind of fish!” someone screamed.
“I got it!” said someone else, and then another voice made a keening, sickly noise. Then there was a long quiet, and someone began to laugh.
I never stopped volunteering, but a new coordinator came on board, and forgot to call me, and after a few months I'd forgotten all about it. It wasn't much work—I simply slept at the shelter on weeknights, because you needed one non-participant to be on hand, as the homeless are not permitted to run their own shelter.
The man with the bag of fried chicken said something to the bus driver, and was let on without paying. The three of us, driver, the man, and I, sailed down Court St. without a stop, until we reached 9th St. There we disembarked, and I held the door for the man, the greasy bag sloshing out with him.
“All right then,” he said, going left. “You take care,” I said, going right.