One of the benefits of being broke is that I no longer have to puzzle over whether or not to give money to bums. Witnessing the unsubtle art of bum negotiation, if the bum is experienced, can be a real life experience, but I often have trouble staying in the moment when a bum starts warming up his act and then out of nowhere the religious brain wakes up (where the hell have you been?) and my wallet-hand gets itchy.
But these days we’re broke, and my conscience is as free as a bird!
Last week, I met Wilbur Morris while working on the terrace of a downtown coffee shop. Wilbur Morris is 62 years old. I know his name and age because the first thing he said after he lit a crooked cigarette was: “I’m Wilbur Morris, and I’m 62 years old,” to which I replied, “I’m Ryan Masters, and I’m 34 years old.”
It felt nice to have an original exchange like this, fact-for-fact, tete-a-tete, as opposed to the ritual dance I have to do in polite society. I felt like my three-year-old daughter, whose entire conversational style is to recite bare facts—He has a tennis ball, she is walking with purple shoes, I’m Eliza Roof (Ruth) Masters and I’m thwee yea’s old.
Well I’m Ryan Masters, and I’m 34 years old. Why not start conversations like this? Do I really care that you’re from Iowa and manage a Staples? I do not.
Wilbur continued: “Man can ya believe my kidney’s the size of a golf ball?” Already, I liked Wilbur. Well, maybe not Wilbur, but certainly what Wilbur represented. He wasn’t just a transactional, Heyyagottadolla bum—whose impersonal sales technique might qualify them for office in this country. Wilbur was a sentimental bum. Sentimental bums tell stories, weave yarns, play the long game. Transactional bumming is a hustle; sentimental bumming is a discipline.
Here, he was establishing an emotional connection, introducing a sympathetic character while suggesting an intriguing backstory.
I’m very tired at this point of playing the part of the discretionarily spendy white male, a role I’ve played mostly because I know it fits my stereotype (again, no actual discretionary income over here), so I decided to play the curious and clueless stranger instead.
I thought his remark over for a moment. “How big is your kidney supposed to be?”
“Well now.” He paused, then regathered himself around his cigarette. “Not that small!”
We both laughed. He puffed out a clean line of white smoke, like an old, idling steam engine. He had a terrific little hyphenated smile, something very Merry Melodies in it that I couldn’t quite place. He smoked through a giant hole in his smile where a tooth was missing. He was an interesting storyteller, direct, vivid, quick on his feet. 1 minute in and he’d already established a personal connection with his audience. This is more difficult than it appears. Clearly, he had performed this bit in the past. I got momentarily jealous when this thought crossed my mind: this guy makes so much more money with his material than I do.
“$20-30 per month for the one prescription, $10-20 for another,” he explained, apropos of nothing. “Maaaaan….”
This is a really subtle and fascinating thing that I’ve noticed the sentimental homeless do. They give you pricing options. If I had money, but not much, then I now had the option of paying him a smaller amount ($10 for the cheaper medicine) to make him disappear, both from my table and my conscience. And if I had plenty of money (I didn’t!) then I had the option to pay for both medications when only one was necessary—thus making me the big winner, in that give-him-your-cloak-as-well sort of way.
Lest you scoff at the greediness of the American freeloader, notice that the pricing structure actually ends up profiting both parties. Wilbur leaves with money, while his apparent benefactor leaves feeling like his life now has meaning and value, which it doesn’t. It’s a mutually beneficial panhandle, a free-market exchange of the soul. Bums are essentially salesmen to the guilty, $50 to forget whatever the preacher is forcing you to remember.
But, you know, I’m broke, and the broke conscience is more limber. “How in the world did you swing that?” I asked.
“Swing what now?” said Wilbur.
“$10 for medicine? In this healthcare system?” I had been applying for Medicaid for the past several months but had yet to appease the Social Services gods, no matter what signed documents I faxed as offerings.
Wilbur looked a little taken aback. He shrugged and turned toward the sun.
“Well you know how it is man? Hard times an’ all.”
“No kidding. And in this political climate!”
“Do you vote?”
“Naw man. I cain’t.”
“Well you know that voting is the cornerstone of all free societies, an action without which we would devolve into madness and rancor!”
“Ha!” I laughed, shook my head, “Just messing with you. Voting is like choosing between Pepsi or Coca-cola”
“Now I like me some Coca-cola!”
“…except that both taste like shit.”
“Haw haw haw.”
The conversation slowed as he smoked for a long minute, looking blankly at the sky while I typed out our conversation.
The brisk autumn air moved between us—well, briskly. Wind rustled in his beard, shaking loose the modern litter that was lodged there, Ho-Ho wrappers and cartoon Bible tracts and an advertisement for organic skin cream. With every puff of his cigarette he blew out a character from the Western tragic tradition, a blue-faced Romeo, that old blind dog Oedipus Rex, the entire cast of that horrible Alexander Payne movie Nebraska. The smoke went out from his mouth slouching toward fall, and literally the leaves reddened before us, preparing the whole earth for the sadness of autumn, which is the grim harbinger of winter, which would come bringing death, though shortly after foreshadowing the rebirth of the spring, the resilience of life and etc etc. in excelsis deo.
Wilbur broke my reverie. “You know there was blood comin’ out my penis?” he said.
I stopped typing. That was a pretty dramatic line. I wanted to get it just right.
“Say that again?”
“Blood was comin out my penis.”
I typed it out, word-for-word, converting it from statement to the interoggative, and then back again. I surmised that he’d probably never gotten this far into the routine. This was raw pathos, unfiltered. It was like his first open mic night—he was out on a very delicate limb. His sleepy red eyes looked lost as he searched my face for generosity, but I had as much of that in my face as money in my pockets.
My eyes narrowed. “Can that kill you?”
His eyes narrowed. “Oh yes “
My eyes narrowed again, narrower this time. “Yikes,” I said.
He looked down and discovered that he’d only smoked half his cigarette. His routine had hit a wall. Performance over, though the lights had yet to come up. He told me about his kids, all of course having had abandoned him. He then gave a half-hearted attempt at a hard-luck story that didn’t really hold together. I had stopped typing at this point.
I sometimes get upset when people embellish, skew facts, or otherwise just manipulate a story for affect. I’m like many millennials in that I expect everyone to behave sincerely, to keep it real, to stop being so fake. As if anything were that straightforward.
All stories are made up, especially the good ones. They’re a matter of human ingenuity and work, deployed for the sake of the soul’s survival. Whether or not a story is real, the thing that matters is that it’s made. That we’d go through the trouble to recite our memories, to develop character, to question motives, and then to use that to affect another human being.
Georgie thinks it makes a movie better when it is introduced by the note: “Based on a True Story.” We disagree on this. She thinks that it makes a story better that it’s “true,” while I think it makes the truth better that it’s a story. Tell the truth, I haven’t cared about what most people call “truth” since it was used to turn an entire congregation against my friend. But I’ve cared about that story for years, despite the fact that I don’t understand it now any better than I did then.
I think that, deep down, Georgie thinks like I think about stories vs. truth. Truth alone doesn’t make you cry, and she loves movies that make her cry. I think the real reason she loves that little “Based on” note is that it allows her to imagine that life itself is a movie, and maybe a good one.
But let’s finish up my story, because a good story tends to change the principle characters, to connect them in some way, and I’m still an asshole and he’s still a bum, so what have we learned? Let’s see.
Wilbur said to me: “Had to go to the hospital.”
“Why’s that?” I said
“The blood backed up,” he said, then leaned slightly forward for emphasis and said. “In my penis.”
He leaned back. The little hyphen of his face stretched, expectantly.
I said, “It backed up?”
“Like a water hose,” he emphasized.
I cocked my head to the side. “I thought the blood was comin’ out of your penis?”
He hesitated. Flicked out his cigarette. Then he shrugged, wagged his white-bearded face in surrender. “Well, it started like that.”
I could feel the class gap between us widening. This made me sad. I’m used to the class gap opening in the other direction, when someone wealthy starts enthusiastically describing what they do and I dissolve into their suede couch. But now it was widening underneath me too, and all I could feel was space all around, and all I could hear was the whistling out of his big, stupid teeth. All this during election season in Lynchburg. Couldn’t anybody just shoot straight, for crying out loud?
“You should get a valve installed down there,” I said.
“A valve?” his face cartooned into a smile, like I had just hit him in the face with a pie but it was his favorite kind.
“Yeah. You don’t need meds, you need a valve installed”
“Like a water hose!” he said.
Then I stood up from my chair, grabbed the loose slack of my belt, and started fake-spraying the whole faux-European terrace, until it was dripping with the sickness of my imagination.
“Phewwww phewwww phewwww!” I announced, and that’s how our story ended, with the whole world covered in my imaginary fluids, and Wilbur Morris cackling madly through a hole in his teeth.
Be a lazy reader! Put on your suede Shakespeare slippers, subscribe, and I’ll have my Amazon Drones fly stories right into your lap EVERY WEEK.