Tonight I am deliberately trying to overhear something interesting, which is why after slowly walking the length of a busy shop-lined street, I've eavesdropped absolutely nothing. The very best glimpses of human nature - heroic, despicable and everything in between - usually find me when I'm not looking.
Why is that so, I wonder? Does something else decide what I'm going to hear and when? Well, fine then, I think to myself in a 12-year-old's voice. I'm taking my ears and going home. On my way to the bus stop, I'm wishing I would have just driven my car and fought the parking on this busy street full of diners and shoppers. I'm tired, it's cold and my patience has left the building.
Tonight, I am The Grinch. Shall I just go with it and try to make a child cry? Lost in my grumpy thoughts, I'm startled by a man's voice as I pass a dry cleaner's on the corner.
"A couple bucks for a meal, miss?" he calls to me. "No," I say instantly. "I don't have any extra tonight, sorry". I lie on two accounts: one, I do have extra and two, I'm not sorry. I work hard for my money and the last thing I want to do is give it to a dirty transient who will turn right around and buy a 40 ouncer and a pack of cigs. That is what I yell to the small voice whispering in my heart that perhaps the man is honest.
His eyes are downcast when I deny him. His hands are clasped in front of dirty tan pants stained with lord knows what. He wears several layers of tops, the outermost a gray sweatshirt with hood and pocket. His beard is wildly unkempt and a faded brown UPS cap covers his head.
Twenty steps later I reach my bus bench. I sit sideways and look back to watch the pan handler do his thing. A handful more people turn their heads to him when he speaks, but continue walking. A woman and teenage boy are next. Both hold shopping bags of treasures. The man hesitates, then speaks when they are almost past. The woman turns around. The boy looks at his mother. She says something to the man and he answers, but stays in his spot.
The woman puts her bags down and goes into her purse as more shoppers walk around them. The boy keeps his eyes on the man. His mother passes some money to her son and he walks to the man to give it. From my bus bench I can see the man smile in thanks. Mother and son are on their way and pass me, her arm around him, both smiling to themselves. Suckers.
The man is off and running to the crosswalk. I spring off my bench and walk briskly after him. I am so certain that he is headed for the liquor store on the corner across the street I am giddy with excitement. We reach the other side and he turns right, away from the booze shop. I am 10 steps behind and feeling more curious than boastful.
He walks purposefully for nearly one block and I consider turning back. And then a cold fall wind gusts an unmistakable aroma: french fries. Up ahead, on the corner of the next block, is a Jack in the Box fast food joint. I stop in my tracks. The man walks across the street. Before he enters the restaurant, he stops at the doors, bows his head and crosses himself in prayer.