I pull into a gas station, the kind half run down, half inner city pit stop. A thin-haired man, mid-fifties, in a tan and oil stained working jacket locks eyes with me before I can even get the car in park. What’s worse is he holds it. This sends a strange ripple of something through my spine. He’s already put me at a disadvantage. It’s like a receptionist meeting my gaze as I enter a building when their desk is still fifty feet away. Something unspoken, social or congenial, has been shattered and now I’m locked into a random encounter on my way to buy a goddamn bag of popcorn.
I step out of the care and vainly attempt to walk past him, but his, “Hey, man,” snags me before I can make it past the front bumper of my car. And I know that voice. As a man who still has dimples when he smiles, I know that tone. I look in his eyes and can see it moving, the man and his con adapting to the stage unfolding in front of them.
“Hey,” I nod as the unshaven man approaches me, a limp hampering his left leg.
Once he gets a little closer he lowers his head and inches forward, murmuring something almost conspiratorially, “Can I ask you a favor?”
I’m already in, knew I would be in when I got out the car.
I try to match his tone anyway, “Sure.”
“So, I’m diabetic and my sugars are getting pretty low and I’m feeling like I’m about to pass out.”
I’m not sure how long of a moment passes between the word ‘diabetic’ and when I actually respond. See, diabetics, at least as far as I can tell, have something of shared piece of soul. A low, a siphoning of sugar from blood that leaves your muscles and mind screaming in a desperate fog, is something we all know. It is our communion, the great trembling horror that binds us all empathetically. This is not to say it is an emergency, just a common experience with more common symptoms. The shit thing about diabetes is that it’s a disease that you can’t really see, nor is it particularly wise to go around guessing who actually has it and who doesn’t.
I play a tune in my head, reevaluating the last half moment; the eccentricity of his walk, the wandering eyes, an unsteadiness of foot. It fits, at least it could, a body on a precipice to shock. And then that pinched nerve of being too poor to be able to fix it.
So, paternity kicks in, Samartanism, whatever you wish to call it. Every notion and bemused distrust is shoved aside in the name of nurturing a potential member of my 29 million member ka-tet. I lower my head to his and I tell him that I am a diabetic as well. I ask him what he wants. Tell him to say it and it is yours. Do you want chocolate, pizza? Or is that too much fat? Slow the sugar down. How about a juice? Skittles? Just say the word that first crosses your tongue and it will be yours, my family, my brother.
“Just a couple of bucks, actually.”
That Samaritan quickly sinks. In its wake. I feel…rage? No, not rage, something light? A twisted sort of sadness swells within me, the kind I can only expect comes from some selfishly denied potential for kinship heroism relegated to financial transaction.
I say, forcing a coarseness into something almost good-natured, “So, you diabetic or you want a dollar?”
Something flashes in his eyes and he recognizes his bluff has been called. He hesitates in the novelty of it before finally answering, “just a couple of dollars”.
I look at him feeling disappointment in my blood. I could have been the abusive use of diabetes in order to try and suffer money out of others that bothered me, but it’s not. I know better than to expect those that have little to lose to bother dabbling with scruples.
“If you want a dollar ask for a dollar. I’m not above giving money to people who ask. Just don’t lie to me. I draw the line at lying. Now, that you’re being honest with me,” I fish through my wallet and find I have only a ten and five pinned between sticky notes and old zoo park tickets. “I’m going to go in and get some change and when I come back I will give you a couple of dollars. Just, next time don’t lie to me. Nothing pisses me off more than someone lies about what they really want. That’s the line.”
“You teaching me how to panhandle?” he asks as I walk towards the storefront.
I think to myself, but don’t answer him, “No, I just fucking hate being lied to.”
I pick up my bag of popcorn and head to the register. As I wait by the register the conversation rings in my ear like an argument sung in the hammering of bells. At the counter, they have an iron display showcasing half a dozen different types of cookies lined on an iron display. I grab a chocolate chip from the lineup and make sure to ask for my change in ones.
Stepping outside I see he’s gone, but after a bit of searching, I find him holed up in the Laundromat connected to the convenience store.
“Just in case you are actually diabetic.”
He smiles, thanks me, and offers me his hand. He tells me his name, I give him mine, and for a moment I can feel the honesty in him explain his craft like a magician among his own. Telling me how sometimes he pretends to break down after people give him money and how he tells them loves them ‘just to see how they react”. I nod appreciative but no less interested. He goes on for a bit, leaving me wondering just how often people bother to try and talk to him, or perhaps more honestly how often he allows himself to talk to other people.
When a proper silence falls I tell him, “You take care of yourself, yeah? Shit’s not easy out there for anyone.”
His eyes soften and flutter from my gaze, leaving him floating somewhere between memory and nightmare.
“No, no it isn’t.”
We exchange one more brief nothing before I leave him sitting the Laundromat two dollars and a chocolate chip cookie richer than when he started.
On the way home I try and imagine the other ways the entire thing could have gone down differently. An endless cycle of escalation and disregard until I found myself fighting the urge to turn back around and talk to him again. I stop myself, not because I would have done it, but because those are the types of things we inflate ourselves with when we are secretly certain we have done something good.
With more time between now and then, I suppose I just wish things were a little easier. Not in some grand Utopian sense, something simpler. I wish the art of asking worked better. I wish people didn’t have to dress up their life in extracurricular misery out of fear of being denied whatever solace a few dollars from a stranger actually brings.