I know that I have seen this guy before, because I wouldn’t notice him now if I hadn’t. The café is a busy place, after all, and I pay more attention to the milk frother than what’s happening out on the street.
But there’s that guy, again; now that I’ve finally seen him with the front of my mind, I recall him being out there a lot. He never comes in, as far as I know, and even though I hand coffee to a lot of people each day, I think I’d remember him showing up at the counter. He’s always wearing that tan coat and flat tweed cap, and not a lot of people are that devoted to a look. It’s hot today, but there he stands on the blazing pavement of noon, eyes hidden by the shade of his hat’s bill.
He’s talking to a panhandler, and I think that’s part of his usual game, too. No one talks to those folks. Few people will give them the time of day, never mind any money; there’s your ‘trickle-down’ in action. But there’s that guy, chatting away to the old rummy.
Old rummy is listening, too. Rapt, even. I suppose if someone finally admits you exist, you’d pay some attention to him.
The guy in the cap takes the panhandler by the shoulders and pulls him in close. Surely he’s not kissing that grimy cheek! Not for that long, anyway. Whispering in his ear doesn’t seem likely either, but that’s about the only other thing it could be unless cap-guy is a vampire with funny sleep habits.
Here’s your jumbo iced vanilla mocha.
The guy has left. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that the panhandler is still there, in exactly the same posture. He’s got a damn funny look on his face, too. Either he’s really happy or really sad.
The guy in the cap is out there again. He’s talking to one of those kids who keep a dog in a bandana around for extra sympathy. The kid seems interested. The dog sure isn’t; it’s leaning against the front of that insurance building across the street, tail between its legs, eyes rolling around. Maybe it’s sick. Someone told me a lot of those kids steal dogs from back yards, and abandon them when they’ve got enough money for the next fix.
Iced cappuccino, no topping. Want a straw?
Well, that’s funny. The guy is whispering into the kid’s ear, too, just like with old rummy last week.
Poor dog. It looks really sick. Someone should call the animal control on that kid.
The guy’s done whispering. Maybe they know each other. They both just nodded like they got a plan figured out. The kid turns and walks away, the dog creeping along the sidewalk after him at the end of a taut chain. The guy stands there, watching him go, then heads off in the other direction.
I’ve never seen one of those kids leave their cardboard sign behind like that.
Decaf chai, double sugar.
Hey… is that the kid’s margarine-tub begging bowl, too?
This should be interesting. That guy with the cap is talking to Scary Mary. I don’t think her name is really Mary, but that’s what everyone in the café calls her. Oh, God, I hope she doesn’t come in here again. Jonah is the manager on duty, and he’s is too timid to deal with her.
Guy’s talking to her, she’s screaming at him. I wonder if she ever doesn’t scream at people? The guy sure is persistent. I doubt she can even hear him, but he’s just gabbing away like she wasn’t crazy.
Double-shot with a splash of amaretto syrup. Oh, you wanted that iced? Sorry, just be a second.
Holy cats. Scary Mary stopped screaming. He’s whispering to her. How can he do that? That time she came in here, I know I saw things in her hair, crawling around.
Now they’re both just walking off. Not together, just moving in the same direction, and Mary’s moving like she’s got somewhere to be. The guy is just ambling along, looking like the heat is no trouble at all.
Big and black. Let me put that in a sleeve for you.
Man, there’s a lot of panhandlers out there today. I’m glad I took my bike. It would suck to have to walk to the bus stop.
Mocha deluxe, extra sprinkles. That looks pretty good. I think I’ll have one for my break.
Oh, shit! Someone almost ran down Scary Mary! Why doesn’t she cross at the corner? What’s she doing now? She’s just… walking on. Usually getting someone to almost kill her gets her riled up hard. Maybe she’s on meds?
There’s someone I haven’t seen in a while, good old shaggy dude with the green shoes. Poor old guy. If he parks himself in front of the insurance building doors like that, someone’s going to roust him.
Big and black, triple sugar.
Yep, here come the cops. Had to see that coming, Shaggy. You can’t just camp out in a doorway. I hope they don’t get rough with him. Dude, just move. The cops don’t want a debate. Here come the cuffs, and he just stands there shaking his head. Oh, man… Mary and that old rummy are coming over. Why would they get involved? Once the cuffs come out, someone’s going in the jug. I don’t think you’re going to scream them into a change of heart, Mary.
Small iced chai, honey, extra cinnamon. Sprinkles, too? If you say so.
Well… I sure didn’t expect that. Shaggy’s back in front of the door and the cops are backing down. Mary and the rummy standing there, watching them go. How’d that happen? I think I see the guy in the cap out there in the crowd, too…. Yeah, that’s him all right, and he’s looking pretty pleased.
Is that cop crying?
Pair of triple espressos, no add-ins. That should keep you going. Sure, I can get you a tray for that.
Whoa. The guy in the hat is standing right in the middle of the street, right in front of the café. Cars are zipping past him, and he’s got his arms up in the air, with his hands flat, like he’s holding a big tray over his head. It’s like he’s looking right at me. I don’t want to see him get hit. I can’t not look.
Shaggy is doing the same thing, in front of the insurance building. And there’s Scary Mary; she’s standing with her back to the edge of the café’s window, only one arm and some of her hair showing. Shaggy throws his head back and starts shouting, the tendons in his neck showing under this beard. I can hear Mary, too, not the words, but something in the same rhythm as what Shaggy is saying.
People out on the street are looking around. Some are smiling. Some look worried. Some hipster is waving his phone around, taking pictures. There’s a sound, getting louder. All the panhandlers, all the homeless—I can see them out there, at intervals along the street, hands in the air, chanting, or singing, looking into the sky, enough of them to be heard over traffic.
The guy in the hat isn’t singing, but he stands in the same posture. I think he’s laughing.
What? You wanted what syrup? You… don’t you see what’s happening out there? Can’t you hear it? God, what is this?
They stopped. The sound of their chant is just dying echoes. Shaggy, Mary, all the rest, still standing rigid, faces turned up. The guy in the cap lowers his hands to shoulder height.
The big window at the front of the café drops into sparkling daggers as a noise takes up the song of the street people. Musical tones like a trumpet blown by thunder surge in, drowning completely the sound of the glass and the shrieks of those it falls on. Shaggy vanishes under a sparkling avalanche, the whole twenty story façade of the insurance building cascading into the street, and still all I can hear is that vast inhuman music.
Silence. I see some of the people at the front of the café screaming, but I can’t hear them.
The guy in the cap turns his hands over, dumping glass from his palms. He looks into the café, smiling, showing teeth as wrong as the eyes just visible under that hat. He turns, begins to walk uptown, and as he does so the noontime brightness turns eclipse-dark. A choking reek pours in through the empty windows.
It makes me want to sing.
“Join the Chorus” ©2015 Dirck de Lint