It’s still very warm, though not as bad as yesterday and the day before. Hardy Square is almost deserted except for the hot dog vendor on the corner and some homeless folks sitting under the tree.
The train is still twenty five minutes away and as uncomfortable as it is out here on the bench, it’s far more preferable than being down below, in the station. Too many people, too dirty.
The police cruiser slows down for the light. The cop in the passenger seat looks at me – just like he does every day. He never smiles or nods – just stares for a second and then looks straight ahead. He and his partner will turn left at the light, continue around the square and disappear down Market Street making their rounds. They’ll pass through again a little later.
I didn’t see the guy coming until he sat down on the bench with a thud. I instinctively slide over a little even though it’s not necessary. There’s plenty of room between us.
“Hi ya! Hot enough for ya? Haha!”
I watch as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tape measure.
He places it between us, studies it for a moment and lets out a sigh of relief.
“Well, all right then.”
I wonder what’s all right, but don’t ask. If I do, I’m locked in.
“Exactly 32 inches…more than enough!”
Uh uh. No bite. I stare at the hot dog vendor across the street.
“The latest acceptable distance for personal space between two people is currently 18 inches. So…we’re compliant. Besides, you were here first – that makes you bench boss.”
Compliant? Bench boss?
Twenty minutes until the train.
“And Jesus said, ‘ Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.’ “
Oh. Ok… Jesus freak.
“I’m pissed at Jesus.”
“How come?” I blurted. Crap! Couldn’t help it. Damn, damn, damn!
He puffed his cheeks, closed his eyes and leaned back – arms folded across his chest. Exhaling slowly he looked to the sky.
“I ask for things all the time, ‘cept I don’t get ‘em. “
“Small things, simple things…easy stuff. Most folks want cars, and big houses…money. Not this cowboy.”
Cowboy? No…no way…he doesn’t look the part. He’s average build, gray trousers, white t-shirt, black, rubber soled lace-up shoes, close cropped hair. No jewelry, watch, tattoos…the man is non-descript. Invisible. Like my old rambler. Light blue, plain, out of date. When you see it - you don’t, not really…you look away – it doesn’t register. Great car for dealing. Bought it for fifty – sold it for seventy five.
“What is it you want?”
“Uhh…you ask Jesus for puff pastry?”
I look around for the police cruiser.
“Huh…you maybe shouldn’t aim so high. Might be better if you asked for something like…uh… Oreos…or Little Debbie or something.”
He ponders this for a moment.
“No. I want what I want.”
“Why don’t you just buy it?”
“It should be free.”
Puff pastry should be…Okaaaaaay…maybe the subway platform isn’t so bad after all…
“Grace used to give it to me.”
“Grace Slick, that trichinosis slut” he sneers.
Now there’s a thought.
“Grace Slick…” I began.
“Trichinosis slut …” He interrupted.
“…gave you puff pastry…when Jesus didn’t?”
Non-descript Man started to speak…stopped…and eyed me suspiciously.
“Where you from, mister?”
“Uhh…Tupelo.” I lied.
I watched as he silently mouthed the syllables.
As his face darkened, he placed his hands across his face, his head tilted.
Spreading his fingers open like scissors, he looked out at me.
“Are you a trickster?”
“Yes.” I guessed.
“Ha! Knew it! Knew it! Knew it! ” clapping his hands.
Fifteen minutes until the train.
“When the truth is found to be lies…
And all the joy within you DIES…”
Uh oh. Can’t we talk about Jesus some more?
The cops are late.
“Lessee…wasn’t that a song by Grace Slick…”
“…and Jefferson Airplane?”
Staring straight ahead he says “So you know.”
Oh no, I don’t.
“Well, time to go…you have a nice…”
“Know what I got in my pocket?”
“No, and I don’t give a …”
“Sorry, not now…I’ve…”
Non-descript man pulls out a small caliber pistol and points it at me.
I sit down.
Straight ahead, the cruiser pulls up - slowed by traffic again.
The cop again looks at me and stares. I give him shifting eye movements at Non-descript Man who is still pointing the gun. The cop looks away as they drive off.
“Wallet” he says cheerfully. “Cell phone, too.”
“Easy, bro’… you got it…”
In a terrible Elvis voice he croons “Thankyouverymuch. Now, keep looking straight ahead - count to fourteen.”
I stop at six and look around – which way? Crap…he’s gone. How the…? No way! That punk little bitch pulled a gun! There’s too much space to cover…too much room…I’m spinning around like a top – looking for a glimpse of…a glimpse of…what? Damn it! What was he wearing? Think! Uhh…jeans…yeah jeans…blue…no, black…and a shirt…what color? Oh yeah… I remember…green…a green jersey…Packers logo…what else?...a tattoo on his hand…which one?...right, I think…homemade… l-o-s-e-r spelled out on each knuckle…No! Can’t remember…
Two hours later I’m on the train reading the police report.
“We’ll call you.” the officer had said.
The train is packed. I’ve got a window seat and am scrunched up against that window by a heavyset woman in the next seat who’s engaged in a torrid love affair with the contents of a bulging sack of Taco Bell. She apparently doesn’t breathe when she eats and occasionally comes up for air with loud gasping breaths – adding immensely to my travel enjoyment.
At the announcement of the next stop, she crams the rest of a taco into her mouth, creating a mini blizzard of tortilla shards as she gathers up her purse, along with numerous shopping bags.
She has no sooner left her seat when it is immediately occupied.
“Hi ya! Hot enough for ya? Haha!”
Non-descript Man reaches into his pocket and retrieves my wallet and tosses it on my lap.
“I like the phone” he says. “It goes DD-RR-OO-II-DD!” and is up and out the door in an instant as the train pulls away.
I check the wallet – everything is there – license, credit cards, even the cash. I search the crowd through the window and finally locate him – sitting on a railing, happily punching buttons on the phone as the train pulls away.
Yeah…it’s hot enough.