I heard the shouting but I didn’t realize it was for me.
I finally turned and saw a bald man with yellowed eyes and teeth. I could make out the bones in his skull as his brown skin slid over them. He walked with a slouch and wore an oversized coat with a button on each lapel. One of them read “I LIKE MIKE”. The other one contained writing in Arabic that I couldn’t read.
“What?” I asked, reflexively, though I knew it was most likely a mistake to respond.
“You did not hear me?” He asked in a heavy middle-eastern accent. “I was yelling to you. Cool jacket!”
I laughed. He pointed one of his bony fingers into the buttons on my right breast repeatedly for emphasis.
“Thanks,” I said. “Ah, you have buttons, too! Awesome!” I read one of his buttons out loud and pointed at it. “I like Mike.”
“You like Mike?” he asked, not seeming to remember what his own buttons read on his own chest.
He asked me my name and held out his fist for me to pound. I did so and told him my own name. I’m pretty sure he told me his name was Hassan, but the exact words were lost through his accent.
He grabbed my right shoulder and looked into my eyes. “I like you, man.”
I’d seen this before. He was trying to butter me up. I inwardly sighed but the guy looked sick, and his buttons caught my attention. I usually passed most homeless folks by on the street, simply stating I didn’t have the money. I usually didn’t.
“Hey,” he said, looking around as if to spot anyone trying to listen in on our conversation. “I like you. Want to party?”
Party. Not with this dude. “Nah, that’s okay. I’m good.”
“No, no…I have TWO GIRLS and they are waiting for me. I can only handle one. The other one, she will be mad. You can have HER, right? We can party.”
I laugh and shake my head. I clap Hassan on the shoulder. “No, sorry bro. I have a girlfriend.”
He tries again a couple of times to get me to go with him before switching gears when it looks like I’m going to start walking. He asks me for cash.
“No, man. I never carry cash. It’s all plastic these days.”
“Please,” he says. “I’m hungry. Would you get me a sandwich, get me something? Joe’s Smoke Shop. Please?”
Knowing I’ll probably regret it, he gets the better of my conscience and I clap him again on the shoulder. “Okay, buddy. I’ll buy you a sandwich. Okay?”
He smiles, and he starts telling me that I’m “NUMBER ONE”. He asks me for my phone number. “I won’t call you tonight,” he says, as if that would be the only deterrent in me giving him my phone number.
“I don’t have a phone, brother,” I say.
He tells me he speaks many languages and that he’s originally from New York. He speaks a little Russian, a little Italian, a little Chinese. I tell him that’s great and that he’s doing way better than I am because I only know English and a little bit of French. He says that French is one language he doesn’t know.
He stops me again on the sidewalk and gets real close to my face and asks if I know of Abraham. I tell him I know a little. A guy passing by slows down, probably to make sure we’re not going to fight each other or something because Hassan is real close to my face. He blinks his yellow eyes and seems to semi-hear what I reply each time.
We get to Joe’s and step in. The way that the two clerks at the counter, a man and a woman, look at me – this guy has been in here causing trouble before.
“Okay,” Hassan says, moving toward the beer cooler. “Just beer and cigarettes and a sandwich, that’s all. Thank you so much.”
“Hey, now,” I say to him. “I’m going to buy you some food because you’re hungry but I’m not going to buy you beer or cigarettes. Okay?”
“The sandwich counter,” he says, grabbing a twelve pack of cans. “It’s closed.”
“No it’s not,” I said, pointing at the girl making sandwiches.
He reluctantly puts the twelve pack down near the newspapers and follows me to the sandwich counter.
The sandwich maker seems to steel herself as we get to the counter. “See?” Hassan asks. “She’s busy.”
“I’m just cutting an onion,” she says. “What can I make for you?”
Hassan orders a roast beef sandwich with a bunch of stuff on it, which brings his sandwich total to around $10.00. I order a Rich Boy and he asks me what goes on it.
“Pepperoni, cheese, ham, tomato.”
He makes a face and waves at me. “I cannot eat pork. This is one thing you and I are different on. We do not eat Pork.”
“That’s okay,” I say to him. “I understand why. I like beef too.”
While I wait for my sandwich, he wanders off to the beer cooler again. While he’s gone, I ask the sandwich girl if he’s always in there. She nods.
“I see,” I say to her, “Well, I figured I’d buy him a sandwich because he looks hungry, but I’m not buying him any of that other stuff.”
“Really? You new around here or something?”
I laugh. “Well, I’m new but I’m not stupid. I just feel bad for him.”
“Okay, well, that’s nice of you. For doing a good deed, I’ll mark your sandwiches down for you,”
She scratches out the total of almost $10 and brings it about halfway there. Same with my sandwich. She smiles.
“Hopefully he doesn’t follow you home,” she says.
“I’m going to take the long way.”
Hassan comes back with a forty ounce and tells me not to worry because he’ll pay for it with his own money. He points again at my buttons.
“That’s a lot of buttons,” he says. “You’re a crazy motherfucker. I wish I still had my eyeglass.” He points to a button I have with Jesus on it. “Who’s that?”
“Jesus,” I say. I don’t bother telling him that it’s zombie Jesus.
He points to a pin with Emerson on it and asks “Who’s that?”
“Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
He points to another pin I have with a Nosferatu on it. “What the fuck is that black shit?”
I laugh. “That’s a vampire.”
“A vampire? Fuck.”
I reach into my jacket pocket and bring out a button I have and hand it to him. It has a music note on it.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“You can have that button,” I say. “Music, man. You like music, right?”
The sandwich girl hands us our sandwiches and we head to the counter. “Thanks, you are the best. You are number one. I fuckin like you, man. You smart, you smart.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “I know what it’s like to be hungry.”
I get to the counter and make eye contact with the woman clerk. Hassan is rambling on about getting cigarettes and beer in addition to the sandwich. I calmly tell him no, and then repeat to the cashier “I’m getting the sandwiches and nothing else.” She nods.
She starts to ring me up and Hassan keeps saying, louder each time, “And the cigarettes. The cigarettes! THE CIGARETTES!”
“NO,” the clerk says. “I’m waiting on him! You can buy them if you have cash.”
“He will buy them,” he says. I sigh inwardly.
“NO,” she repeats. “He does not want to buy you cigarettes.”
Dejected, he falls silent. We get outside and he repeats his story about the party with the two girls.
“I can’t, brother,” I tell him. “It’s getting late, sorry. I gotta’ head home.”
“Why you not buy the cigarettes for me?”
“Because, I can’t buy that stuff, man. I got you food because you’re hungry. That’s all I could do. Good luck.”
He waves and kind of mentally slumps and mumbles an “it was nice meeting you” before going the other way with his sandwich.
After walking for a while, and checking behind me occasionally, I came to a four way intersection and had to wait for the light to change so I could walk. As I waited, a large man pushing a shopping cart came toward me down the sidewalk.
“Sir? Would you care to help a homeless veteran?”
I slumped and said “I’m sorry, man…I just helped another guy up the street. I have nothing, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.”
We waited for the light to change and while we did, he told me of his service in Panama. He told me where he’d been shot and he said that the government was screwing over everyone in his unit. He told me also about some of the horror stories over there.
“Had this nice Jewish boy under my command,” he said. “Good morals. Good character. Well, he comes running at me out of the bush with this naked fuckin’ two year old kid in his arms. I says “HENDLEY….What the FUCK’RE you DOIN with that kid?” Well, he shakes his head and says ‘Sir, you don’t want to be doing this tonight. There’s about eighty kids, all naked, in the basement. Bein’ used for sex trafficking.’ Sick fucks.”
After chatting with him for a while, I shook his hand and wished him luck and finally made my own way home, away from the troubled streets, the old vets, and the desperate addicts. When I arrived home, I thought about my experience for a long while. I had helped one homeless man find food, but it didn’t seem to comfort him as much as I thought it might have. And then, another man – also homeless – I could do absolutely nothing for.
In the end, I was glad I at least made the effort to show some humanity to Hassan and the vet, but sometimes a sandwich can never be enough. Sometimes, a sandwich is just a sandwich, and not the cure to a problem that has plagued mankind since the beginning. Sometimes, more than a sandwich is needed – but sometimes, it’s all one has to give.