Everyone said it had been an unusually long, hot summer. Things just haven't been the same since global warming. Eventually, though, winter really cut in, just a few weeks before Christmas. I walked through the streets with my usual twelve layers of inner and outerwear to keep out as much cold as possible. In the winter, I try to keep my time on the street to a minimum. In fact, I have been known to transfer subway lines three times just to avoid walking a few extra blocks. You see, with me, it's not the quantity of time that it takes to get somewhere, it's the quality.
So, anyway, one afternoon, I was walking back to work from my lunch break, barely looking up so as to hide my face from the wind, and as I turned a corner, my nose caught the sulfur smell of a match, fresh from lighting a cigarette. I slowed down and looked up. Standing on the corner was an old man. He had no coat on, just several layers of street clothes. His trousers and shirt looked as if they had once been brightly colored, maybe some sort of red and gold, but now they were so dirty and tattered that their colors were indistinguishable from shades of brown. His hair was thick and white, as was his beard, and my eyes caught his twinkling blue ones. Something about him looked familiar and I smiled at him. He sort of bantered with himself, ignoring me, and puffed away on his cigarette. His image stuck in my mind until I got back to work. Then my brain was taken over with the stress of drudgery.
A few days later, I was underground, riding the subway downtown on my way home from work. It was one of those rush hour rides I’d put near the circus category; several people singing or talking very loudly to themselves; one or two people suddenly moaning and getting up to pace; and the usual trinket hawkers and potential subway thugs, all mixed in with the travelling workers like myself. I got lucky and grabbed the last seat. It's not just that being able to sit down is convenient, but it kept me out of the main stream of frenzied activity.
I became absorbed in an article I was reading in a magazine about the plot of rap songs to subliminally prime us to be racist, when I just happened to look up. Seated right across from me was a large man, not obese but plump and tall, although it was hard to tell exactly how tall since he was sitting down. His clothes were loose and baggy, disguising but not hiding, his generous belly. His hair was snowy white and his skin had an ethereal glow about it. It was pink and translucent, almost glowing, the lower half covered by a white, scruffy beard. He smiled at me, as he mumbled to himself, and I looked down. Even from across the subway car, I had seen his old, cobalt eyes and they seemed to look right through me. At his feet was a dirty brown sack, like one for laundry, full and lumpy. I watched him out of the corner of my eye until we both got off at 14th street, but ascended different staircases.
Some time the following week, I was taking a shortcut to Houston Street from Spring via Crosby. It was very late at night and this cobblestoned block was dark, deserted and unsettlingly alley-like. I was hurrying down the middle of the street, to keep in the streetlight and out of the shadows near the buildings, until a rat, bigger than my foot, ran across my path and down into the sewer. I gasped, veered right and hopped up on the sidewalk, almost tripping head first into a doorway. I caught myself just in time and as I straightened up, I saw a figure sitting on a darkened step. It was a charming faced, roly-poly man, smoking a pipe. He had long white hair, a bushy beard and he winked at me. I had to rip my eyes away from him as I urged my feet to keep moving, making my escape from that at infested alley.
That night, the picture of him, in his dirty red and brown rags with pipe smoke encircling his head, would not leave my mind. What is with me, I thought, why does every homeless man I see, look like Santa Claus! It was unsettling, and I couldn't help wanting to give my head a good shake as if I could knock something that might be loose back into place.