Tuesday, April 22, 2014

a cigarette is all you get

It was overcast as I stood at the corner of 16th and Market Streets, waiting for my friend Steve to meet for lunch. I huddled next to a news stand and craned my neck hoping to catch Steve's approach from 15th Street. A few stray raindrops grazed my face ever time I looked up. I checked the time on my cellphone several times. It looked like Steve was running a bit late, but he was walking from the other side of City Hall, so I would cut him some slack.

Luckily, the diversity of the bustling lunchtime crowd offered plenty of distraction and even a modicum of amusement. Pretty soon, this guy crossing the street from the southwest corner was about to provide some brief entertainment.

With a spring in his step, the older man walked up to the news stand, just a foot or two from where I was standing. He wore a threadbare knit cap, pilled and frayed, pulled down to eyebrow level. His eyes were totally obscured by a pair of large black sunglasses, which were functionally unnecessary on this gray, misty afternoon. The lower visible part of his face was flocked with a coarse growth of wiry hair, sparse in places and wildly unkempt in others. He hunched over slightly under the weight of a haggard backpack, obviously stuffed with treasures and necessities that needed secure accompaniment. He drummed his bony fingers on the protective Plexiglas window of the stand in an attempt to get the proprietor's attention.

"How much is cigarettes?," he asked in a gravelly voice.

I couldn't hear the reply through the Plexiglas, but it obviously outraged the man. He curled his hands into fists and banged down hard on the small counter, making the packages of M & Ms jump slightly from their display. Then, with extended fingers and his palms facing down, he made a bouncing motion with his hands while he berated the news stand owner.

"Six fifty-five?! Too high, man!," he growled, still exhibiting the international gesture for "lower" with his hands, "You is way too high. They sell 'em for six-fifty up th' street, but I don't feel like walkin' all the way up there."

He argued a little more with the unseen (from my vantage point) owner of the news stand and then finally walked away. I can only assume he made an attempt at haggling on the price of cigarettes, hoping to get the owner to concede the extra nickel. Since the man walked away shaking his head and empty-handed, I can safely surmise that no such concession was made. He disappeared into the crowd on 16th Street, passing a smiling Steve on his way to meet me.

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