If you’re like me and get distracted easily, you might have missed a critical moment in my story the other day. Now, don’t think this means you have ADD or your caffeine intake is insufficient or you need a vacation (though you might). I missed it too, so we’re all in the same boat here.
But before I divulge, I wanted to remind you that Herm and I still have our daily conversations. I know I haven’t mentioned him in awhile, but sometimes I just get caught up in all the hustle and bustle, I forget to share some of the more consistent moments of my day. And Herm is consistent like the traffic lights changing and the M15 bus rolling by.
Today is no different. Herm had just brought over two black coffee sand was lowering himself onto one of the coffee house chairs – which for the past few days have been mysteriously waiting for me when I get to the brick wall every morning at 9AM – when one of the guys in Mattie’s crew comes toward us with bright eyes and a hundred-dollar smile.
“Hey, UMM.” He nearly whispers, looking around nervously.
“Speak up, kiddo.” Herm yells, startling a woman walking by. “Some of us got our ears rattled at Okinawa.”
He rolls his eyes and continues, though slightly louder, “Can I, ummm, borrow five dollars, man?”
“Absolutely not.” Herm asserts.
“Herm, shhh…” I hesitate, reaching into my pocket to see if I still have anything. A group of tourists gave me some cash this morning in exchange for taking my picture at a thousand different angles. I was resistant at first (to the money, that is, not the photos) but they insisted. “What’s it for, buddy?”
“I gotta buy lunch for my girl, and you know, I just got fired from my job and–”
“That’s not his problem.” Herm shouts, swatting his hands in the air to chase the kid away.
“It’s cool, Herm. Here, I got four singles. That’s it.” I pass him a ball of crinkled bills.
“Sorry, I only have four.”
“Sorry?” Herm responds with disgust. I try to ignore him.
“Thanks.” The kid turns, walking away in a hurry. “I’ll get you back soon.” And I nod.
Herm snaps his fingers in front of my face, turning my attention from the kid as he runs toward the park. “You really believe him?” He snorts. “Buying lunch for his girl. You just got conned, Jackie-boy.”
“Seemed like a legit story.”
“I hear a thousand like it every day. You don’t have two pennies to rub together and you’re giving that kid four dollars. For what?”
“He’ll pay me back.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
“He will. He’s a good kid.” I say, with slightly less conviction.
“Good kids don’t ask people sitting on the sidewalk for a single dollar. Let alone, five.”
“I’m sure he asked for a good reason.”
“Jackie-boy…” He exhales deeply, attempting to shift his chair closer to me, but ultimately giving up on the pursuit when it appears heavier than he thought. “You seem to want to believe the best in people.”
“So…when you want to believe the best in people, you can’t be a good judge of character. You’re only gonna see what you want to see.” He pauses as the M15 bus roars down the street. “He’ll never pay you back.”
Just then, Snake Eyes rolls by with his faded black suitcase, and the same wheel missing. Only now, there’s a rip in the suitcase’s seam about the size of a half-dollar and coins are falling through to the sidewalk. Some fall on their sides and spin with purpose toward the curb. Others land flat on their backs, face up to the clear sky and the sun. “You’re still in my friend’s spot, suit man.”
“As far as I know, he’s still on vacation.” I reply.
He points his finger at me, “Touche” and continues walking, a steady trail of sparkling copper pennies and silver dimes and nickels escaping behind him.
“Hey man, you’re losing change over here.” I say, pointing to the coins.
“It’s not the right kind of change.” He responds.
“What’d you mean?”
He stops abruptly, seemingly bothered by his need to explain further. “If I can’t hold on to it, suit man, it’s not the right kind of change.”
I’m not sure how to respond to this, so I just let Snake Eyes continue his trek toward the park, and then turn back to Herm who’s eyeing the drunken river of coins like a winning lottery ticket at his feet.
“How can you say I’m not a good judge of character, Herm?”
He rises from his chair, empty coffee cup at hand. Lowering himself to the sidewalk, he releases a loud grunt over each coin as he lifts and drops them into his cup responding, “Look at the people you surround yourself with everyday. That crazy nomad is just one of many.”
“But I’m friends with you, right?”
He returns to his chair, cup half-empty, and with more seriousness than I expect, says, “You got lucky with me, Jackie-boy. Just lucky.”
Later, after Herm went home for Jeopardy, I hear a gentle, but confident, “Good afternoon” as I type away at the newest version of my cover letter. Who says “Good afternoon” anymore, except in the movies or meetings of British Parliament? I was suspicious immediately (since I’m trying to be more skeptical of people after Herm’s assessment of my naiveté).
“Good afternoon.” I reply, just for consistency’s sake.
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Not at all.”
She looks younger than me, but I can tell by the way her eyes hold onto me that she’s older than she seems. She’s wearing one of those ladies suits with the long, slim skirts and a suit jacket to match. All grey, right down to the shoes, with the exception of a black bra strap that stubbornly sneaks through. As she sits on the bare sidewalk, avoiding the jacket I laid out for her, she reaches for a tiny notepad and a pencil inside her shirt pocket, like one of those private eyes from the 40s. I’m expecting a fat cigar to be lit between us at some point, but it doesn’t seem as though she’s come bearing gifts.
“Nice day,” she says and I nod, not wanting to completely indulge her, simply because I don’t know what the notepad and pencil are for.
We look out onto the street for awhile. I get the feeling she’s trying to get a feel for what my day feels like, as Jay does. Only not as sincerely. She seems to be methodically looking out at the street and then at me to see what I’m doing, her pencil swimming around in the air above the notepad, though she avoids writing anything down at first. She repeats this for a few minutes and then finally asks, “What’s your name?”
“I’m A.J.” She holds her tiny hand out – in fact, my hand seems monstrous compared to hers and I kind of like this – continuing only as I take it and shake. “I’m just glad to hear your name isn’t really ‘UMMMM’.”
I look at her with more curiosity now, not particularly sure how she knows about the nickname given to me by the neighborhood kids. “How do you know about ‘UMMM’?”
“Jack,” She smiles in a way that leads me to believe she’s used to getting what she wants with that smile. “I don’t think you realize what you’ve become.”
“And what is that?”
“You’re all over the place. Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter. Even the blogs have started to notice. Everyone’s commenting on you. Your picture is all over the Internet.”
“Really?” I mean, I know a lot of pictures have been taken of me, but I guess I never thought they were being collected and sorted in any kind of methodical way.
A.J. nods, flipping back to earlier pages in her notepad, “One Twitter user, Brittany, has thousands of followers on a feed dedicated just to you. The news is spreading fast.” By the way, that was the critical moment we missed the other day. Brittany told us this, flat out, and I’m only recalling it now as A.J. throws it all in front of me.
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.” I say.
“Hello Jack Michael.” It’s now the fourth week in a row that Carol has snuck up on me. For a seventy-year old woman with advanced rheumatoid arthritis she has a ninja-like way about her. Don’t poke fun at the “Jack Michael” part. She insists on calling me by my full name, though I don’t even know how she knows my full name. I must’ve told her at some point, but the exact moment of reveal remains a mystery. She probably squeezed it out of me one day with one of her sweet old lady smiles or some other devious ninja tactic.
“Who’s you’re friend?” Carol asks, suspiciously. She doesn’t seem to like me talking to other women.
“Oh,” I shake my right foot after its fallen asleep; circulation’s been bad the past couple of days for some reason. “This is A.J.”
Carol nods but does not look at A.J., who has not stopped jotting notes in her notepad since Carol showed up. “I brought some tomatoes and cucumbers from my garden.” She smiles with slightly stained teeth, a few stray hairs hanging over her chin and adds, “For my growing boy.”
“That’s sweet of you. Thanks.” I take the bag of dirty, green tomatoes and slightly rotted and oddly-sized cucumbers and add, “MMMM. They look delicious.”
“Picked them this morning just for you.”
Honestly, I’m not exactly dying for home grown vegetables from deep inside the guts of this city, but Carol aims to please, or at least seems in need of sharing the fruits of her labor with someone so I oblige. At least the part about taking the vegetables; I never said I actually ate them. Look, maybe she doesn’t have a grandson to share produce with. Or maybe she does, but he prefers Green Giant. Anyway, I put the bag beside me and tip my invisible cap to Carol, who seems to blush at the gesture. “Thanks Carol,” I add.
“I’ll see you next week, Jack Michael.” She replies, holding a skeptical stare at A.J. as she continues down the street to the hardware store for new gardening tools. I know this because I usually catch her on the way back every week, when she proceeds to show me a new stylish planting pot or fresh new gardening gloves or some sort of magical plant food. I guess stopping by my brick wall has just become a part of her weekly shuffle. Like a healthy detour on an otherwise mundane path.
A.J. doesn’t waste any time to continue our conversation after Carol has disappeared around the corner. “You represent a lot of things to a lot of people, Jack.”
“I don’t see how being on Facebook and Twitter are a sign of that. Though, of course, I do think it’s cool.” I hesitate with a half-smile, “Don’t you?”
“I do, but it’s more than that. Social media is now the temperature gage for a lot of significant trends. Plus, I’ve been here for five minutes and I already see it.”
“I think you’re exaggerating a little. Though I can’t say I mind.”
“No exaggeration. You represent something. Your suit. Your sign. Everything.” She then picks up my sign, written (as I mentioned earlier) on a piece of paper glued to a box of Captain Crunch, holding it in front of her perplexed face, turning it gently and slowly as if she had just stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scolls
“I don’t want to represent anything. I just want a job. Nothing more.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want anymore. People are interested and it’s already started taking on a life of its own. It’s my job to make sense of that, Jack. Will you talk to me about an article I’m writing for the Times?”
“So that’s what this is about… I knew you were too charming to be honest.” Yes, I’m flirting with her. She’s a little older than me, but still very cute. Hair pulled back with one of those thick, fabric headbands so her inquisitive eyes stare back at me. They’re almond-shaped and bright green like some sort of exotic serpent, reminding me of the graphically-enhanced lady characters in my video games, actually. But just in the eyes.
“I’d like to talk about your experience, Jack.”
“No.” I’m fidgeting a little with my suit jacket on the sidewalk, mainly because I don’t know what else to do with my hands. Thankfully, I find a quarter that Herm left behind after his treasure hunt on the sidewalk, so I toss it up and down to keep busy. “This is ridiculous.”
“People want to know your story.”
“There’s no story here…or else I’d be getting way more interviews.”
“I’m just the first on the scene.” She rips a slip of paper from her notepad with her name and email address written in the jagged, rushed lettering of someone who never has quite enough time. “And I’d like to get an exclusive.”
“Why don’t you call my publicist and set up an appointment?”
She rises from the sidewalk as the M15 bus nears the curb and looks like she’s ready to rush toward it. “I’ll keep coming back until you say yes.”
“You do that.” I try to sound defiant as she walks onto the bus. “But you’re not gonna change my mind.”