This story was published in
Times of Joy and Sorrow
“So do you.”
“Yeah, but you smell so bad that even the rats don’t want to get too close to you.”
“Can’t see no rats, but I can smell you,” Griffin taunted the younger man. “How long you been without a bath?”
Walter didn’t answer right away. The space between the two men seemed to stretch in the short silence. “Long as you,” Walt finally said.
“You don’t know how long I been without a bath,” Griffin answered indignantly. “I didn’t even know you before today and, in fact, I smelled you before I met you.”
“Oh, that’s real funny old man. Take a bow.”
This time the silence was even longer and they seemed to grow even further apart. The only sound in the dark alley was that of the consistent drip of rainwater through an old storm drain. Griffin shifted his feeble body trying to find some semblance of comfort atop the mound of plastic trash bags. “Ain’t never seen a rat,” he whispered again.
“I said, I ain’t never seen a rat!”
“No fooling,” Walt said in disbelief. “Well, I have seen plenty. Just how long you been calling this here alley home without seeing a rat?”
“I’m not sure,” the old man thought for a while. “I think maybe a year, give or take a month. I kind of loss track of time out here.”
“You mean to tell me that you been down here a whole year and you ain’t never seen a rat?”
“Wow! I can hardly believe that Griff. Every time I open my eyes, the first thing I look for is rats. They bite, you know?”
“Never thought about it.”
“Yeah, they bite and they eat almost anything. I’m always on the lookout for the big nasty critters. If I went one day without seeing a rat, I’d think I was dead and gone to heaven.” Walt shivered at the thought. Not that he was afraid of rats, of course, he just didn’t like the critters.
“It ain’t that hard to believe. I’m blind.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. I’m blind.”
Again Walter was shocked. He propped himself on one elbow and leaned closer. “Griff, you mean you can’t see anything?”
“Not a damn thing.”
It was quiet again but this time the silence didn’t seem to separate the two men. Walter didn’t know what to say. He wanted to know if Griffin had always been blind or if he’d been the victim of some horrible accident but he wouldn’t dare ask. He’d learned that people don’t like other people that ask too many questions. So, he waited hoping that Griffin would offer something to assuage his curiosity but Griffin said no more.
Walter had lived on the streets of Philadelphia for more than two years and he had met many people. He met all types of people who found themselves living on the street, either purely by fate or choice but he had never met a blind man. Finally, his curiosity got the best of him and he said, “how?”
“How can you survive on the street being blind. These streets ain’t no picnic for folk with two seeing eyes. I just don’t understand how you survive.”
“I survive the same as you. I eat where and when I can and I sleep the same way.”
“Oh,” was all Walter said.
“How did you come to be on the street Walter?” Griffin asked.
“How do you think? Probably the same as everybody else out here, I lost my job. No work, no income, no home. That about covers it for everyone out here except the ones they let out of the mental hospitals.”
“Not me,” Griff said.
“What do you mean, not you?”
“I mean, I didn’t have a job to lose. I just left.”
“I left Georgia a few years back to come to live with my daughter. She married some high powered Philadelphia attorney named Allman. Everything was alright for a while. Then he decides he wants me out of their condo and in some home. They argued about it for a while and I just decided that I'd die rather than see my little girl so unhappy so I just left.”
“Yep. I just walked right out the door and I ain’t looked back.”
“So you think your little girl is happy not knowing where her daddy is or how he’s doing?”
Griff was quiet for a moment. Of course, he had thought of the things Walt said many times but he figured his daughter would get over that grief in time. “She may have worried at first but it’s been more than a year now. I’m sure she’s over it.”
“That’s too bad. I guess you miss her, huh?”
“I miss everything but I’d rather miss her out here where I’m not a burden to her and I’m not cooped up in some home where people thirty years younger than me want to tell me when to wake up, when to sleep or eat. No freedom, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”
Quiet minutes passed and Walt finally heard the old man softly snoring. He crawled into the cardboard box that would serve as his bed for the night and went to sleep. Just before dawn, a chorus of whining cats in the alley jarred Walt awake. He lay there for a few minutes planning his day in the quiet of the early morning. It was early March and the worst of the winter was behind them but with March came rain, sometimes icy rain. Walter’s shoes had a hole worn right through to the sole. Although he’d padded the soles, with newspapers and pieces of plastic nothing seemed to stop the dampness from seeping through. His chosen mission today was to find a pair of shoes. There was a mission over on Arch Street where the city gave away shoes, blankets, and some clothes to the homeless but Walt preferred to find his shoes by trash picking or panhandling enough to pay for a pair of second-hand shoes. He made it a practice to stay away from the missions. Those people at the missions were always trying to put you away. They would send you to a shelter or a hospital where the people would clean you up, feed you, and then treat you like you weren’t just homeless but lazy, stupid, or crazy. No, he’d stick to trash picking.
“Hey Griff, you awake?”
When Griff didn’t answer Walter knew that he’d already left the alley.
Two years of panhandling had taught Walter that people were more willing to give if they thought that you were homeless through no fault of your own, so he had taken to wearing a sign that read, “DEATH MUTE.” Wearing that sign was the biggest lie Walter had ever told but it always brought him more money than just begging alone.
With his sign hanging from his shoulders Walt took his plastic shopping bag and headed for the street. By noon Walt had enough money to get a hamburger and a two-dollar pair shoes from the second-hand shop on Market Street. Even though it was a cold and rainy day the manager of the fast-food restaurant where Walt bought his hamburger said that he couldn’t eat inside the store. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave the store,” said a pimple and freckled face young man that Walt assumed was the manager. “You’re scaring away the customers and you stink. Just take your order and go outside.”
“You didn’t give me this hamburger, you know. I paid for it the same as everyone else. That makes me a customer too.”
The young man flagged Walter and went back inside the store. This wasn’t the first time Walter had been asked to leave a restaurant and Walt knew that there was no sense arguing with managers. The manager would just call the police and he’d been asked to leave anyway. Walt pretended to kick the door but in the end, he just walked away. He decided to eat his hamburger in the little park across the street. He found an empty bench where he sat and ate his burger slowly, savoring the familiar taste. It wasn’t much but it was certainly enough to take the edge off of his hunger for a while.
Now that he had warm dry shoes on his feet and a little something in his belly, Walt decided that it was time to scrounge enough money for dinner and start looking for a place to sleep. He made his way toward the park exit. He noticed about five teenage boys on the other side of the park. They bounced a basketball and laughed playfully along until they came upon a homeless man. One of them, a tall blonde kid said something to the man and his friends roared with laughter. Walter couldn’t hear what the boy said but he could tell from the sneering faces of his friends that the words were probably not kind. Then the boy threw his basketball at the man. The man stumbled awkwardly toward his tormentors only to be struck a second time with the basketball. He yelled for help as the other boys joined their friend in an evil game of abuse, throwing bottles and stones at the helpless old man. The man grabbed hold of his cart and tried to move away from his abusers.
Lousy kids, Walt thought as his eyes scanned the park for a police officer.
“Help! Help!” The raspy voice was hardly able to pitch as high as a scream but it brought Walt’s attention back to the scene. It was Griff.
Walter ran as fast as he could toward the group. “Leave him alone!” Walt shouted. One of the boys pushed Griffin’s cart away from him and Griff fell, the side of his face slapping against the cement walkway. Walt swung at the group of boys with his shopping bag as his voice added to Griff’s hoarse, barely audible screams for help. He was pushed down to the ground and kicked in his side until he could move no more. He and Griff lay only a few feet apart. No help came but the boys soon tired of their evil game. They walked away still laughing and playing as if they were proud of their wickedness. Griffin still screamed, although his cry was as hardly more than a whisper. “It’s alright Griff. It’s me, Walter. Everything is alright buddy.”
“Are they gone?”
“Yeah, they’re gone. Think you can stand?” Walt asked as he heaved himself off of the ground. With Walter’s help, Griff scrambled to his feet. Blood oozed from a gash at the side of his head, slightly below his temple. “Looks like you hit your head pretty hard. I think we should get you to a hospital.”
“No!” Griff protested and tried to pull away from Walt’s grip on his arm. “No hospitals.”
“That gash on your head looks serious. You could need stitches or something.”
“I don’t care. I won’t go to a hospital. You know as well as me that if I go to a hospital, I’ll be in a home by supper time. No hospital and no home, I won’t go.”
“Alright, alright, but we’ve got to do something to stop the bleeding. Walt rummaged through Griff’s belongings until he found an old shirt. He tore it into rags and wrapped it securely around Griff’s head. The rain had become steadier now and Walt knew that he should at least get Griffin to someplace dry. They made their way east toward the waterfront. People rushed past them. Businessmen and women, students, and office workers all rushed pass them keeping pace with the urgency of their individual lives. Two homeless men in tattered and soiled clothes, one obviously hurt and the other struggling to carry his meager belongings with one hand while supporting his injured friend with the other and no one seemed to notice. In a city bustling, they were invisible to society.
After they had walked about fifteen minutes or so they came upon an abandoned office building on Second Street. Although they couldn’t get into the building they could get into the vestibule. Walt made Griff as comfortable as he could. He knew that he would have to leave to find some food for dinner and he worried about leaving Griff alone with his head still bleeding. Ignoring his fears and taking some comfort in the fact that the vestibule was at least dry, he promised to get back as soon as he could and he left Griff alone.
He returned two hours later with biscuits and fried chicken that he’d scavenged from a KFC dumpster. “Hey Griff, wake up man.”
Griffin sat up sluggishly and opened his eyes. For the first time, Walt looked into the blank stare of blind eyes and he shivered as if a cold wind had blown straight through his body. The makeshift bandage that he used to wrap Griffin’s head was soaked through with blood. “Hey Griff,” he said again. “We’ve got to get some help for your head. You’re bleeding again.” Griffin didn’t answer. He’d lost a lot of blood and Walter was afraid for his new friend. “Griff, maybe we should go into the shelter just for the night, ah?”
“Why? You can’t stay here man. Look how you’re bleeding. This is serious man.”
“I told you, no hospital.”
“Why? Just tell me why?”
“Too many coons in the shelter.”
“What?” Walt could hardly believe his ears. Sure, he’d only know this man for a couple of days but he never figured him for a racist.
“You heard me, too many coons. My Daddy told me that there are two kinds of people to stay clear of, whoring women and coons.”
Walt wanted to laugh but instead, he said, “Griff, have you ever known a coon?”
“No, but I knew a whoring woman. Married her and she kept right on whoring with my kid in her belly and my ring on her finger. Now I figure, if my Daddy was right about her, he was probably right about the coons too.” Walter couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You ever seen a coon, Walt?”
“Yeah, plenty, but my Daddy didn’t call them coons.”
“What did he call them?”
“People Griff, just people.” He filled Griffin’s hands with chicken and biscuits and Griffin ate hungrily. “Guess you were pretty hungry, buddy?”
“Guess so. Why do you keep calling me buddy?”
“It’s just an expression Griff. It means friend.”
“Does that mean that I’m your friend?”
Walt didn’t sleep much that night. He worried that Griffin was losing too much blood. In the morning when Griff wouldn’t wake up, Walt panicked. He remembered the name of Griffin’s daughter. Griff had said that she married an attorney named Allman.
Leaving Griff alone in the vestibule again, Walt walked several blocks until he found a public telephone booth where the phone books had not been ripped from the walls. He went down the list of Allmans, making several collect calls and giving his name as Griffin. Finally, someone accepted the call and asked that he hold. He silently prayed as he waited. Then a soft voice came over the line, “Dad? I’ve been worried sick. Where are you?”
“Ah, my name is Walter, Ma’am. I know where your father is and he’s been hurt.”
“What? Where is he?”
Walter relayed the events of the past day to Griff’s daughter and told her where she could find her father. Then he went back to the vestibule to wait. Three hours later Griffin had gotten stitches for his head wound and was resting comfortably while Walter sat in the kitchen of a high rise apartment building overlooking West River Drive and the Art Museum eating the first full meal he’d consumed in over a year.
“Mr. Walter, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all you’ve done for my father,” Barbara Allman said. Griffin smiled between bites and Walt could tell that no matter what he’d said about freedom, he was happy to be at home.
“Mr. Walt,” Mrs. Allman said. “I have to tell you that meeting you was rather a surprise for me. You are the first black friend my father as ever had.”
Griffin dropped his fork and it made a loud clang as it hit the glass table. The shock that spread across his face was priceless, Walt thought. “I guess now you can say that even though you’ve never seen a coon, you are blessed to have a black man for a friend.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” Griff said.
“It’s alright buddy. I know you didn’t know.” Griff’s face still held the look of shock. “It’s alright buddy really,” Walt said “You see, out there on the street you are as black as I am to the world. We’re both like pariahs in a pond of ducks.”
After taking a shower and a shave, Walt was given clean pajamas, a robe, and slippers. Mrs. Allman said he could stay in the guest room. Walter didn’t know just how far the Allman’s gratitude would extend but he was grateful for just the night.