Essay and drawing copyright 1997 by Barrie Maguire
Early for a dinner reservation on a cold wintery night, I stood in a parking garage vestibule watching two homeless men. One was black, one was white, both were dressed in the haphazard uniform of the streets.
The smaller of the two sat on the sidewalk, leaning against the wall, his knees drawn up, head resting against the grimy brick, a smoldering cigarette hung from his mouth.
The bigger man wore a navy-blue knit cap pulled down over his head. He had a dark scar on the bridge of his nose and his right hand was wrapped in a dingy ace bandage. This man was constantly on the move, as hyper-active as the other was lethargic. When there were no cars waiting at the traffic light and no pedestrians to intercept, he would pace, crossing the street at the light, turning left and crossing that street, turning left and crossing again, then back to where he'd started. Again and again he would repeat this drill, striding quickly from corner to corner to corner like some zoo animal pacing the limits of his territory.
But whenever cars stopped for the red light he would quickly stalk to the driver's window of the first car and lean down, gesturing, demanding spare change from the driver. Rebuffed, he would indignantly move to the second and so on. One driver opened his window an inch and slipped a dollar bill through. Another driver, a young woman, actually drove away through a red light rather than face the tall, threatening man with the bandaged hand and the cut on his nose.
The intersection was between me and my restaurant, and the aggressive one, with his constant pacing, was effectively covering both sides of the street. I realized I'd have to carefully time my passage to avoid him.
The intersection became empty, and the big man made one complete circuit of the four corners, then approached his listless companion and, arms waving, began to deliver an animated one-way monologue. The smaller man turned his face against the wall and kicked weakly at the legs of the other who threw his arms up in the air in exasperation and turned back to the street, head swiveling, in search of new targets of opportunity.
A taxi pulled to the curb and a pretty blond woman in a full-length red coat emerged. She was immediately confronted by the big aggressive man in the blue wool cap. Frightened, she shrank back from him as he advanced on her, bending forward, his arms flung wide.
For a moment I was afraid I was going to have to help her but the woman took a step back then dodged past him and hurried away around the corner. He let her go without a further glance and returned to his pacing.
Then the red light produced an unusually long line of idling cars, extending up the street toward me and beyond where I stood. Through frosty clouds of billowing exhaust I saw the big man begin foraging for handouts, moving from the first car to the second to the third, coming my way. I ducked back into the interior of the garage and after he had worked his way past me I decided that this was my chance.
I came out onto the sidewalk and hurried toward my restaurant. Up ahead the second man was slowly grinding his cigarette butt out on the pavement. I passed him, my eyes averted, and reached the corner. From behind me I heard a distant shout and I looked back to see the small man scrambling to his feet, craning his neck in the direction the other man had gone.
"What?" he yelled and began to run down the sidewalk, "You got food?"
Barrie Maguire is a writer and illustrator from Narberth, Pa.