One summer evening walking home in New York I saw ahead of me a middle-aged man, one arm holding fast to a newspaper dispenser, a paper cup for spare change dangling from the other arm.
I stopped, reached in my pocket and gave him what change I had. “I hope this helps,” I said.
The poor guy smelled of beer and piss. One of his legs was wrapped in dirty gauze. He seemed to be struggling to maintain a grip on the plastic newspaper box and not fall into the gutter.
He asked me where I was from. I had the sense he thought I was a foreigner, and he was curious. Perhaps in his youth he had been abroad with the military, and he was hoping I was from a country he had been to. More than my change, he seemed to want to have a conversation.
“I was born in Boston,” I said, “and I have lived in the United States almost all of my life, but I speak French at home—my wife is Belgian, she speaks French—so apparently I now speak English like I was from somewhere else.”
He didn’t seem to be listening closely, nor to be interested by what he heard, nor to be expecting to be interested by it.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“North Carolina,” he said.
“Where in North Carolina!” I had lived four years there.
“Durham! I used to live there.”
We had found a subject in common, I thought, and I tried to engage the man in discussing it, but he had nothing to say about Durham or North Carolina. Home must not be a source of happy memories, I thought at the time. I now think that for this man—as for diplomats who offer a string of compliments and congratulations before stating their government’s position—this where-are-you-from stuff was a kind of warming up.
“What did you think of—,” he asked. A celebrity had recently crashed his plane, killing himself and several others.
More than once already this event had provided me an opportunity to recall a favorite line from Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” There is a duel, a baron is killed. A phlegmatic character comments, “One baron more, one baron less . . . “ “One celebrity more, one celebrity less,” I told the beggar.
He seemed a little disturbed that my comment did not fit within the range of responses he had been expecting, the range he had been receiving from other passersby. Nonetheless, he was fully prepared when I, in turn, asked, “What did you think?”
Adopting a solemn, definitive tone, he said, “It was sad.”
I do not feel that he was making a bid for moral superiority by expressing empathy after I had made a wisecrack. Nor do I feel that this celebrity’s death greatly concerned him. My sense is that like people all over the country, myself included, he had come up with his favorite reaction to the big current event, and like the rest of us he felt the sense of satisfaction of having come up with a line one likes, of having people to deliver it to, and of delivering it.
I wished him well, and he wished me well, and I went on my way, leaving him desperately gripping that red plastic newspaper dispenser, seemingly on death’s door, but with a contented look on his face.