The Panhandler

Contributor: Peter McMillan

- -
Day 1
There was a different guy on the corner. I wondered what happened to the old man.

Day 5
On the second day, the new guy greeted us pedestrians by humming loudly, "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go!" At first, it was funny, especially for the morning rush, but you were still torn between chuckling and wanting to throttle the mockingbird.

In passing, something about the new guy—I called him Panhandler Pete—reminded me of a homeless guy I met when I was in college. I was visiting D.C. It was on the Mall and we happened to be sharing a bench. He told me his life story, at length and without any prompting. He'd been a psychoanalyst before getting blacklisted. He said he had no regrets though, not of any duration anyway, because he got rid of them by shouting through the fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This, he said, served the additional purpose of securing short-term food and lodging. I dropped a couple of bills in Pete's coffee cup.

Day 6
Monday morning—worst time of day on the worst day of the week—and again we're serenaded past like Disney drones. Not really thoughtful, this new guy. Quite insensitive really. “No money today,” I shouted as I ran past. He had to learn the rules.

Day 26
After a brief settling in period, Monday mornings began to look less miserable and gray. Panhandler Pete's "Hi ho, hi ho" thing didn't vex any more. And he'd taken to entertaining. Last week, he introduced magic tricks. At first nobody stopped, but day by day we got more curious, and we moved closer. By week's end, some of us stood and watched, mesmerized by Pete's show. Meanwhile the traffic light changed again and again. I was late for work three days and missed my performance review ... twice. “Train delays,” I said.

Day 31
Pete showed off a new set of tricks ... making stock picks. He would run through 10 stocks and give his buy, sell, and hold opinions. A beggar predicting the market? It was laughable, except that as he spoke, the language of the Street fell so fluently and melodiously from his lips, he had to be in the know. I couldn't swear it was him, since we'd only ever talked over the phone, but listening to Pete evoked images of my former stockbroker, the fellow who helped me see the need for a second mortgage and a moonlighting job. However, even if it was him, I couldn't exactly beat up a homeless guy. It would be me that got mobbed. Instead, I approached Pete and whispered, “It’s good to see you again.” He smiled.

Day 40
It was brutally cold. I don't know how these people do it, but there he was day like the postman ... of yesteryear. I hadn't forgotten about our possible history, so when I dropped change in his cup, I greeted him by name. The first couple of times he was taken aback, but he got used to it, likely judging me to be no real threat. However, he did stop picking stocks. The magic tricks were out, too. Come to think of it, it might have just been the cold. Now, he was shrunk into a ball to give the wind less to cut into. You couldn't see flesh. It was all tucked away into this snow-encrusted human ball. As I came closer to drop my coins into the coffee cup, which was nearly hidden in the snow, I saw a yellowish stain on the ground. My god! All of a sudden, I forgot everything about why I thought I should hate this man. I reached down and asked whether I could take him someplace warm. He raised his head slowly and choked out words to the effect that I should smile, because it wasn't as bad as it looked.

Day 41
All weekend I hadn't been able to get the image of Panhandler Pete out of my head. I brought a blanket, and not wanting to humiliate him, I gave it to the little girl in the private school uniform I'd seen watching the magic shows. I asked her to give it to him, and when she took it over to him, he turned his head graciously towards her, and I was speechless. It wasn't Pete.

I shuffled over through the snow, and asked what had happened to Pete, and the old man said that Pete was just temporary. The old man had collected a lot of money—he wouldn't say how much—just to give up his spot for 40 days. Pete, he said, had a bet on with some hustlers at the Exchange.

All that was left of Pete's turn on the street was a half-empty Lemon Gatorade bottle.

- - -
The author is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers. In 2012, he published his first book, Flash! Fiction.
Read more »
These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google
  • Furl
  • Reddit
  • Spurl
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati

Help keep Linguistic Erosion alive! Visit our sponsors! :)- - -