It was February and he looked cold. I bought him a cup of coffee and a bagel at Starbucks, but only because he asked and I don’t like conflict. His clothes were dirty, but not yet in tatters, and he had only a small goatee covering his face. I felt no sense of pride in helping the less fortunate, just a slight irritation that he hadn’t said thank you.
When spring came, I began to see him everywhere. He smoked cigarettes in the parking lot outside my office, panhandled outside the bus station near my apartment and took naps in park I jog through. Once, on a date, I pointed him out to the woman I was walking home. He was digging through an ashtray looking for salvageable butts. His beard had come in a bit more and he wore a torn Denver Broncos sweatshirt. “I bought that man coffee once, and he didn’t even say thank you.”
Most of the time I tried to avoid him, crossing the street or taking a longer route so I wouldn’t have to pass him. My greatest fear would be that he would remember me and the food and drink I once gave him. He surely had come to expect these things from me, depending on my assistance as if I was a government agency or Mother Teresa. Receiving nothing, he would shout out to the people on the street, “Look, look! This man has forsaken me! Why?” and I would be forced to tell everybody my secret: I didn’t care about this man or his struggles. His life meant nothing to me.
That summer, I began to hate him. It was a beautiful morning when I passed him while walking to work. Sitting in a patch of grass by the sidewalk, he held a hand-rolled cigarette between his gnarled fingers and laughed with a group of similarly filthy people. The sun was barely up, but it was already nearing the mid-seventies; he was in short sleeves, showing arms that were scrawny and pock marked. He caught sight of me while he laughed and sent a yellow-toothed sneer my way. My blood boiled, and my fists clenched as I moved past him. I wanted to rip the cigarette from his hand and spit on the cherry end until it was out. Then I would throw his backpack in front of a train, or under a bus, destroying whatever small things he loved. Finally, I would tear the sod from underneath him, leaving only soil and squirming insects for him to sit on while I walked unhappily onward.
The longer I went without seeing him, the more my hatred for him grew. Sometimes I wouldn’t cross paths with him for many months and begin imagining he had died somewhere under a bridge or in a ditch. I pictured birds pecking at his soft, sallowish flesh while worms made their way up from the ground into his arms and legs. His mother would visit the morgue to identify a John Doe, her eyes swollen with tears from what the animals had done to him. “He was always such a bad child,” she would say as they pulled the sheet back over his face, “and so ungrateful.”
But, eventually, he would always turn up, dirtier and with longer hair. I began to wonder if we were tied together somehow; perhaps our existences were bonded long ago, when we were both atoms in a glob of dinosaur spit. I tried every means to empathy – meditating on -cold nights spent in the street and the unspeakable things he must have done to get by. I tried praying for him silently when I walked past his cardboard signs. Once, I even considered asking his name. But never did I stop hating him.
Last night, I saw him again outside a 7-Eleven. He sat on a plaid blanket next to a newspaper vending machine. A ‘No Loitering’ sign hung a few feet away.
“Hey man, could I get a couple bucks?”
He hadn’t spoken to me since I first met him. I had forgotten the sound of his voice.
“I bought you coffee once, you know. A long time ago.”
“You did? Oh.”
I turned and began walking away.
“Thanks for that.”