The man slurped his soup. Sometimes his shaking hands thwarted his hunger and let the broth dribble into his beard. Not that he seemed to notice. The trembling spoon rose and fell regularly, as if directed by some silent metronome.
I sat opposite him, burning with the glances and stares of bystanders. His silent eating allowed me to stew in my discomfort. Why had I, after years of trained apathy, been shaken by this miserable human into giving alms? I am not used to it.
The slurping had stopped during my musings. The man sat wiping his mouth with a napkin, leaving streaks darker than spilled soup on its white surface. I asked if he wanted more, he nodded and I obliged. Then he began to talk.
He told me of his daughter, the child he’d conceived while still working as a security guard. Obvious pride showed in the way he spoke of this past employment.
I asked how old she is but he shook his head. He couldn’t remember. It had been years since he’d last seen her. She’d been a girl when their lives had parted for good. He wouldn’t say what happened.
This reticence was notably absent in other aspects of his life. He spoke with loving sadness of the bottle. Did I have some money for him for a drink? I said no, sadly not. Just for food. He accepted this gracefully and tucked into his second bowl of soup.
I grew to wish for silence while he spoke of his life through soup-soaked whiskers. He didn’t seem to notice how he sprayed and spilled his food when he excitedly told me more about himself. He’d gotten the jacket a few days ago from a church group. Every year they came around as the weather grew chill and handed out warm clothes and blankets. He seemed genuinely proud of the garment, as if its novelty somehow made him new too.
I didn’t have some other warm clothes for him? Sadly, no. Not here. He accepted this with the stoicism I’d come to notice in all his actions. I asked if he was looking for work. He shook his head: he was too busy for work.
He was studying to become a mechanic. Not the kind that fixes engines, though. He would loiter and beg outside an auto shop where they welded exhausts. He told me that he was watching closely and would one day open up an exhaust shop of his own.
He told me of other dreams too. He wanted to visit India. He’d heard a lot about it. When he spoke of that country, he became serious and the sadness of years on the street blazed from his eyes.
“In India, they give you a chance. If you working to be a mechanic, they don’t look away if they see you. They know. Understand. I hear that there, you can ask for money without being ashamed. It’s because, when people give you money in India, they want to bless you. Here people give money, but they hate you for it. They curse with their rands and spit on you with cents.”