She backpedaled, headphones in ears. He admitted his mistake.
“Early,” he said.
When you stand at a city corner waiting to cross the street, the half-observed bodies around you function as important walking cues. She nodded to him, distracted. That great clip buried in the hour-long podcast was lost again because she’d been mid-pause at the collision, and now she’d been thrown three menus deep, away from her audio. What was the last timestamp? The vanished line of dialogue would cost her at least another 20 minutes on her latest project.
“I’m sorry,” the young man said. “I guess I looked at the wrong light. I suppose I would have been responsible if we’d been run over.” He laughed.
“At least we understand each other,” she said, though she meant to say that at least he understood his role in this traffic jam.
He looked like he wanted to add a pseudo-date dinner invitation to his apology, so she looked straight up.
Much less confusion in the blue sky.
She remembered a teacher in grade school telling the class that looking up with just your eyes could help you recall the word on the tip of your tongue or that math equation on a quiz.
Some blue blank calmed her.
“I want to eat.”
The lackluster romantic line brought her gaze down. A homeless man carried a sign for food. “Can you spare some money to buy me a sandwich?” He wasn’t addressing her, but she noticed his wardrobe, a forgettable hodgepodge of materials.
Homeless people never wore bright colors, she thought. She dismissed her judgment, but the idea of begging for money and sleeping on the sidewalk grated her sense of morality, a residual condition she retained from her childhood despite not having walked into a church in years. Her uncle had once told her that she should never shy from helping someone in need, but that a person must own the recovery.
So she never gave money.
If she helped one, how could she not help all? That scenario would leave her without means of her own and in the same status as those she aimed to assist. Yet when she walked past the men and women, she considered the demoralizing result of hundreds of people actively ignoring you each day. Add in the loneliness, a high probability for ill health and, oh, the winter. How could a human live that way?
She stood at the edge of the curb and wondered. More people filled the corner. The homeless man stared.
Headphone lines dangled from pockets and hands. Ties loosened. People shuffled through bags and purses. The man’s beard scratched against the cardboard sign. He asked every busy person at the busy intersection on the busy street.
“I want to eat dinner tonight. Will you help me?”
Some turned the other way.
Some turned up the volume.
A few shrugged.
Grace looked anywhere but at the hungry man. She ran a hand through her hair to catch a sly glance at the traffic lights. Still 18 seconds for the other crosswalk.
The homeless man wedged his way between men and women whose socks cost enough to buy a meal.
“I’m a war veteran. Will you help me eat?”
The voice never wavered. Maybe he wasn’t really a vet. Would that change the negotiation?
He smelled, so the cluster of well-socked people rearranged their order as they tried to isolate him with space. But a street corner can only hold so much humanity. Grace could feel his eyes. She remembered the three granola bars in her gym bag. Could he smell them? Homeless did not mean animal, she reminded herself.
Still 11 seconds.
The corner dance continued. Purses and suit jackets ruffled and swooshed. And that beard. A collective thought bubble would have read, “Please don’t touch me.” The plea from the possible-veteran turned the sidewalk and sky into prime focal points as some began to commit to memory the pattern of the cracks or the position of the clouds.
A corner full of people couldn’t will the traffic lights to change. The homeless man had stopped asking, but he still stared with his sign in hand. Grace closed her eyes.
Dollar bill; laundry. Five; coffee. Ten; lunch. Twenty? Jackson could get you halfway across the country if you worked him.
She looked again at the orange hand across the street, but now lights in both directions turned red. Relief would soon arrive as a lit-up stick figure.
But the left-turn lane had a green arrow and a silver car ran the red light and a taxi sped on its bumper and the whole corner receded from her vision and she realized she had been holding her breath. The sign flashed Walk.