Street Smart – Dave Bailey

Street Smart

I sat on the corner of 34th Street and 6th Avenue. I felt tired and cold. I tried to huddle up farther under the awning built into the side of the building where the walls indented a bit. It was cold and rainy. Chilly for a summer night in the middle of July. One of the those crazy weather weeks. It had rained almost every day for the past week. It had actually cleared up during the day. The sun came out blazing in all its glory, but it didn’t last long. I had actually thought that the tonight would be the first night that I would get to sleep well without waking up cold and wet. But my hopes were soon shattered. Before the afternoon was up, the clouds had rolled back in over the sun covering it completely. Drifting in with the cold north winds that the blew them back in. I had been downtown about that time. I knew there wouldn’t be anywhere warm around to sleep in that neighborhood. So, I started pushing my way back up to the center of the city. Back into the heart. Hoping to find someplace dry. Hoping some tender soul would take pity on me and offer me a warm morsel before I felt too tired to stay awake any longer.

I walked about a mile up 6th Avenue before the first drops started to fall. I kept on pushing my way through cold droplets till I came to a subway entrance. I walked down the steps. As deep in as I could go before hitting the turnstiles. I had a metro card with a couple of dollars on it. I had found it a week or so back. It was a godsend. Already used it a time or two. But it was running low on credit. I didn’t want to use it unless I had to. I was saving it for an emergency or when I had somewhere farther to go. I could make it to where I wanted to go with a good, solid two hour walk. It was only a couple of miles on up 6th. I had huddled there in the corner. Watching people coming down the steps. At first they ran in. Dripping wet. I could tell when the rain had started slowing down by the way they came in and how went their head and shoulders were. Once the rain slowed down, traffic started picking back up again. So, I made my way back up the steps out onto the street. Rain wasn’t too bad. Slight drizzle. But nothing that that would make me melt. I glanced at the sky. It was still pretty dark. I probably wouldn’t make it very far before it started up again, but I decided to make a go of it. Get as far as I could up that avenue. People up around that section tended to be a little more kind-hearted. Even a slice of pizza would help tide me over till morning.

Fact is, I never asked. Never held up one of those little cardboard signs telling my sob story. If people knew what I had been through, I’m sure they would have even been more generous. But I knew I felt before I got into this mess. I hated seeing those signs. Never believed most of them anyways. So, I refused to use them myself. Yet people still often generously shared a meal or offered me something each day. I never starved to death. There were places I could go if I really needed to. People I could turn to if I absolutely had to. But I hated the thought of giving in. That for me was the last resort. Besides, I had already been at this for too long to give up now. It was going on two years. I was still alive. I had survived this long. I knew that someday my luck would change. Someday, I would get back on my feet. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know how. But I knew someday, things would change. The tide would shift. My luck would change. And then, everything would go back to the way it had been. Maybe even better. So, I was waiting. Biding my time.

I had been through rough times before. Never this bad of course, but I had always made it through. I knew I would make it through again. Don’t ask me how or why, but I just knew I would. So, I patiently bided my time. Patiently waited for my luck to change. Every night, I would lay my head down on a small cardboard pillow that I rolled up for myself. I’d watch the stars. Say my prayers. Well, on the nights when it wasn’t raining that is. I probably wouldn’t see any stars tonight by the looks of those clouds even if the rain did stop. I’d just have to hole up there under one of those scaffolds along the way. I’d go as far as I could up 6th avenue and crash under some scaffold between a couple of doors. Preferably a store that didn’t open before ten. Maybe even a eating joint that didn’t serve breakfast. Not that I needed to sleep in. I was usually up on my feet before the crack off dawn, but it just felt nice to drift off to sleep knowing that I could sleep in if I wanted to. Silly. I know. Right? But I just slept easier knowing that I would wake up well before anyone got there to shoo me away.

I kept walking. Making my way under the scaffolds. Running down steps into subways that came out on the other side of the street. Every little bit off covering helped keep me dry. I had on an old, white poncho that I had found in a trash can. One of the sleeves was torn, but it still kept me dry. I also had an umbrella stashed in my backpack. Not that I needed it to keep dry, but I usually put it up anyway. Even if just to keep others at bay. Hide my face. Even on nights when it wasn’t raining. I knew it wouldn’t really protect me from someone who was intent on harming me. But if I couldn’t see who was walking past me when I opened my eyes, it made me feel like they couldn’t see me. Made me feel invisible. Not that I really needed it. I already felt invisible anyway. A million people walked past me every day. Most didn’t even notice me. Not that they seemed to notice much of anything around them anyway. All running to and fro. Hustling. Bustling. Back and forth. Rushing madly up and down the same streets every day. Every. Single. Day. Going to the same places. Doing the same things. Day in and day out. I watched them rush by. Every day. Never stopping. Never observing what or who was around them. Most of the time, their heads looking down at their smart phones. Ear buds in their ears. Blocking out the sounds around them.

I think that was the one thing that didn’t miss from my old life. I didn’t have a phone anymore. I didn’t have all that technology to tie me down. I don’t know if I would have wanted it, even if someone had offered me the best technology money could buy. In the last two years, since my fate had changed, I had learned to slow down. To truly see. To observe. To listen. To pay attention to everything going on around me. Where ever I was. Whatever I was doing. And I liked it that way. Some told me it was called zen. Others told me they were doing it to achieve a minimalist lifestyle. I didn’t really care what it was called or why it had happened. I didn’t really have much of a choice after losing my job. Losing my home. Losing my family. Losing my health. And everything else that had befallen me. Sure, I hated it in the beginning. I didn’t think it would last long. I figured I’d get right back on my feet before the month was up. One month rolled around. Then another. Soon, I lost all hope. It took me a while to pull myself out of that deep, dark pit of despair. Eventually, I came to grips with the fact that this was real. That this was really happening to me. After that, I started to work my way through the immediate issues I faced. I learned how to survive on the street. I learned the rules. I learned what to do and what not to do. I learned who I could trust and who to avoid. I mastered the necessary skills to survive. Eventually, even to thrive in my own sort of way. Not that it was anywhere close to what I would have considered thriving before. But in its own unique way. In my own sort of way, I developed new standards. I learned to enjoy the little things. Things I had always taken for granted. Things I had never enjoyed before. Things that now gave me immense satisfaction. It was weird, because as sure as I was that things would eventually change. That my situation would change. That I would get back on my feet. I also knew, in the same way, that I had already changed as much as I would ever change. I had changed completely. And even when that day came, where I found myself back on my feet, I knew that I would never again be the same. I wouldn’t change back into the person I was before. That this whole life situation had changed me. Made me a new person. Deep in my mindset. I was already doing things to bring about the changes I wanted. Building my networks. Doing good to everyone around me. Even when I didn’t have enough for myself. Barely had enough to give, but I always found a way to help those in need. I hated asking for something for myself, but I had no qualms about asking for someone else in need. That was something that I had only begun doing in the past few months. I took me a while to simply get back onto my feet. Then to master the self-awareness of everything going on around me. Then to notice what was going on around others. I could already feel it paying off dividends in my life. People who never noticed me before, now knew my name. People who never noticed anyone else seemed to notice me. It was such a strange feeling. So many were like ghosts. Mere shells. Bodies walking up and down the street. Never noticing. Never being noticed. I was once like that. I could see myself mirrored in them. All those walking through life half asleep. Sleep walking. Unaware. Wondering what it would take to shake them out of their slumber. To get them to wake up and take notice. To actually start living.

Oh, yeah. And back to myself. I finally did make it all the way back up to 34th and sixth. I did want to get a little farther up into the city. But this was far enough. I just sat and waited. I didn’t worry about a thing. I knew that soon enough, someone would notice me. Offer me something. And even if not, I had already eaten that day. Tomorrow was a new day. I knew where I could get food if I really needed it. Saturday was a good day to get food. There were several places that offered brown bag meals in the late morning. Others offering soup in the evening. I wouldn’t starve. Sleep would come soon enough. So, I just sat there and watched the hustle and bustle. Even in the drizzle. People still racing up and down the sidewalks. Looking down at their phones. Wireless ear pieces inserted. Talking to themselves. To someone far away. Racing along, late into the night. It was almost midnight before some young fellow came along. Offered me a box of pizza. Four large slices. Half a family-sized pizza. He mumbled something about his wife not eating and his kid already asleep. He ate half and didn’t want the rest to go to waste. I thanked him. “God bless you,” I said. More than I needed. I’d wouldn’t eat more than two. Didn’t want to eat too much. Too much pizza gave me nightmares. Or at least that’s what my mamma always told me. Maybe I should try eating the whole thing just to see if I really would have nightmares. That was another thing I learned over the past two years. To question everything. All the things I believed all my life often turned out to be myths and silly superstitions. I never would have realized it if I hadn’t gone through these hard times. I learned to be grateful for this stripping away. This cleansing time in my life. But I knew I wouldn’t eat all four slice. They were large. One would be plenty to tied me over. Maybe two if it tasted as good as it smelled. It was still warm. The rest I would share with some others I had seen earlier that evening. I knew some of them could use it more than me. Some of them were new to the street. Still learning the ropes. Needing a helping hand. Hadn’t learned to trust the system. Or better yet, hadn’t learned to trust themselves. I kept my eyes peeled. I watched the street closely as I munched the first slice. I soon saw one of the newbies making his third round. I called him over. I offered him a slice. Shared my story. Gave him a few tips. I knew it wouldn’t do much good to tell him everything. Most of it wouldn’t even make sense yet. He’d have to learn most of it on his own. We would chat again some day. We would exchange stories. By then we would speak the same language. Share a common bond. A common culture. So, I didn’t try to cram any of my sage wisdom down his throat. No use tossing pearls before swine like the good book said. So, I mostly let him talk. Asked a few questions to let him know I was interested. Let him tell his sob story. He still played victim. He wasn’t willing to accept the fact that his own actions had led him here. Just like I hadn’t in the beginning. It was hard. To accept the blame. It was easier to point our fingers. Some still refused to take responsibility even after twenty years on the street. I think that was the difference between me and most of them. I knew it was my own fault. My own actions that led to me ending up here. I repented. I acknowledged my mistakes. I fessed up to everything I had done. I refused to play the role of the victim. I had gotten myself into this mess, and I was going to do whatever it took to get myself back out of this mess. I’d been trying hard for the past few months. Come close a few times to pulling myself out, but things went wrong. I made sure to learn from my mistakes and try again. It was close. I could feel it in my bones. I wanted to get back on my feet. Get a job. Own my own home again. Take care of myself without having to depend on handouts. But tonight, I was still here. So, I would make the most of it. Told my new friend good night when I had had enough of his griping. Bid him farewell, as he continued on his next round. Still looking for someone else to complain too. I set up my little black umbrella. Put it up between me and the bustling crowd still going strong at eleven thirty. Rolled over. Closed my eyes. And quickly drifted off to sleep. Grateful for a warm spot to sleep and a full belly for the night. But mostly grateful just for having learned to pay attention to the little things as I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Dave Bailey

Dave Bailey started writing short stories when he lived in Brazil to help his students learn English. Now, he lives in Florida again where he continues to write fun and inspiring sci-fi and fantasy fiction stories. You can read his weekly short stories here on his blog. Make sure to join his advanced reading crew so you know when new stories become available >>>