I wandered into the shelter earlier than usual because I heard there might be shoes. "Sorry, no shoes today", said the man with the belligerent voice and sympathetic eyes. "Maybe next week." I looked down at the scuffed brown loafer on my left foot and the black high-top sneaker on my right. Yeah, they could last another week if I kept a lot of walking off my to-do list. I smiled at that. To-do list. Those were the days.
As I walked out I noticed a well-dressed man carrying a book. This was a good sign. People who read are frequently more generous than those who don’t.
“Hello, sir”, I began. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I have recently been released from prison and am in need of assistance.” I had never actually been to prison, but this was a well-tested gambit that often elicited a contribution.
The man, however, walked right past me. Undeterred, I scooted up behind him and tried How The Gulf War Had Really Messed Me Up, but he just walked faster. I increased my speed to keep up but when I started itemizing my health problems, the man broke into a run.
He moved pretty good for a big man and had about six steps on me before I put it into high gear. I caught him at the library steps, which the man had climbed two at a time. He was frantically yanking on the doorknob, and then turned around with a wild look in his eyes. I was afraid he was going to scream.
“It’s closed on Wednesdays”, I said. “Budgetary restraints.”
He nervously raised the book over his head, holding it like a club. “Not one step closer,” he said. “I don’t have any spare change no matter when you were released from prison or how long you were in The Gulf.” So! He had been listening after all. A warm feeling of satisfaction spread over me.
“Look, mister,” I said, “if you’re going to use a book as a weapon you’ll need something more substantial than ‘The Prophet’.”
He glanced up at the slender volume in his hand and lowered it until it hung limply at his side. “It was my wife’s, actually,” he murmured. “It’s a week overdue.” He looked at the little “closed Wed.” sign on the library door. “I guess her branch would be open today.”
“Most are,” I said. “The Donnell, Mid-Manhattan, Yorkville…”
“Yes, Yorkville. That’s hers.”
“Nice little library. Clean toilets.”
That reminded him of our respective stations in life. “Yes, well, I suppose I could try another branch.”
“I guess you don’t spend too much time at the library,” I said as he squeezed past me and gingerly walked down the stairs.
“No, my wife is – was – the reader in the family.” I followed him down to the sidewalk and walked along side of him. This time he didn’t speed up.
“She doesn’t read anymore?” I said.
“Oh, I’m sure she does. She's...we're not...we're...", he whispered the next word with awkward unfamiliarity, "...separated.” Then he smiled bitterly and looked at the copy of 'The Prophet'. "Yes, she was a reader, alright.”
“Mine, too,” I said.
“You have a wife?”
“Used to. Not anymore.”
"Don't I know it."
He turned a corner and headed uptown, but I didn’t follow. “The Donnell is just 30 blocks. You can walk it in half an hour,” I called to him. “Thanks,” he called back. “I’ll just get a...” He trailed off and an uncomfortable look spread across his face when he realized he was talking to someone for whom a taxi might as well be the Space Shuttle. He started to say something, but a cab pulled up and he got in without comment.
I wandered past the library and back to the center where it turned out some shoes had come in after all. I got a nice pair of Oxfords that didn’t fit too badly (and at least matched) and some watery macaroni and cheese.
As I was leaving Mrs. McCarthy stopped me and said someone had left something for me. She handed me a library copy of ‘The Prophet”. Inside the front cover was a hundred dollar bill and a note. “Perhaps you can return this for me tomorrow and pay the fine. P.S. Keep the change.”