John stepped out of the warmth of the hotel lobby only to be met with a brisk chill laced with a smack of rain. He looked up and saw nothing but clouds; he then thought to himself, it was no wonder this city was nick named the suicide capital as no one could see the sky, neither the sun nor the starry night. This was his first trip to Seattle, and while the calendar read June, the temperature he faced outside was more like that of fall closing on winter. As he turned the corner and walked past a paper box, the headlines caught his eyes, “Coldest Week in 100 Years” it read. Sure enough, he was full of himself when he packed for this trip with, short sleeve shirts and light pants. John was not only the paying the price for this by having to endure the wrath of 40 degree temperatures, but also the stares of the passer bys who were wrapped up warmly in their over sized coats and designer sweaters. Some looked at him with pity, others like he was just plain stupid or the what. However his only thought at this time was to get where he needed to be while avoiding making any more eye contact with his judgers then he was forced to.
While he stood there impatiently waiting at the cross walk in the rain, he noticed his shoe had become untied. These where his favorite shoes, comfortable for travel as they slipped off quickly at the x-ray machine, which in John’s life had become a very important feature in this new post 911 era. John, while bending over to retie his shoe, cursed aloud the SOB in the failed bombing attempt that now forced him to have to tie his shoe on this rainy Seattle Street corner enduring yet further stares of the passer byes with their warm coats.
It was at this point that John begin to think how things where connected in the world. How a failed bomber now caused him to have to tie his shoe in the rain. He then wondered what other things might be affected when suddenly he was jolted back to reality by a profanity being shouted into his ear followed by a request for money. This caused John quickly stand erect having just finished tying his shoe and spinning quickly to the right only to come within inches of what appeared to be a homeless man dressed in tattered cloths and a ripped up cotton shirt wrapped around his forehead to prevent the rain from washing down a face that had seen a better day.
Taking a quick step back, he regained his composure hoping the homeless man was really only just that and if he was not he had not noticed the stunned look on John’s face. Having assessed that the man was just another of many of Seattle’s homeless souls wandering the streets seeking a free hand out, he took to himself to quickly mutter he hadn’t any lose money and made his way across the street even though the signal still had not changed to allow him a safe crossing. On the other side of the street John took a measure of pity and self-inflection that he had not given the man at least a dollar and this weighed upon his soul for some reason he was not sure of.
Having made it two blocks to the restaurant, he shook off the cold and rain as he entered and tried in vain to ignore the stares of the hostess as she laid eyes on a man warring a rain soaked short sleeve shirt in 40 degree weather. John quickly asked for a table for one, non-smoking and felt a measure of self-pity. Table for one, as the song says is the loneliest number and this night as many others, it was Johns only number. Taking a seat at a worn table his mind raced back to the homeless man and how careless he was in letting his guard down in a strange place, as well as the pity he felt for abandoning the poor soul without at least giving him a dollar. Even if this handout had, went for booze, who was John to judge this unfortunate soul?
It was at this moment the self-pity returned to John and he once again wondered why he hadn’t given the man a dollar. It was not as if John had not given hand outs to beggars in the past as he had many times in his travels aboard. He remembered the poor gypsy girl he stumbled across in Cologne Germany with her baby held close to her as she propped herself against the cold limestone walls of the Dom Cathedral. She tried to hide her face from John out of embarrassment of having to beg as her lively hood. Even though John was now warming in the restaurant, a cold shiver ran down his spine as he thought of this girl and her poorly clothed baby in the middle of January standing outside for hours on end. He thought how he had given her 5 euros as he passed by and felt good about it even knowing in the back of his mind that once she disappeared into the catacombs of the subway system, the rest of her clan would more then likely strip her of the bounty she had collected above.
Knowing this, John thought why he should feel warmth from the act of giving when he knew that same girl and baby would be back there the next day and the day after and so on. What did he change if anything? Would that baby grow up and take it’s mothers place by the cold limestone with her own baby? Did John by his act of giving just perpetuate the same despair that touched his being and caused him to give the money in the first place? This weighed even heaver on his heart, however again he was pulled back to reality with “what can I get you to drink” by the waiter now standing across from him sport the typical wait-staff past on smile.
Looking up from a menu, he hadn’t even started to read, john figured he would buy time by asking his standard question, “Coke or Pepsi”? The short answer came back from the waiter “Pepsi”, John’s quick retort was ice tea. As John got older, he wanted the things he wanted, and Pepsi was not what he wanted. With each passing day, it became more and more important to John to have what he enjoyed and especially the simple pleasures like the taste of a real Diet Coke and not just any other cola.
John once again thought to himself “is this the reason for the self pity” in not giving the homeless man a dollar? Could it come down to be the same thing just as the selection of a soda brand? Seemed awful sallow to John and he bristled at the thought. Around this time the waiter returned with his drink, John once again wished for the Diet Coke and settle again for something less. This seemed to be the story of John’s life, always a day late and dollar short of grabbing the brass ring from the carousel of life. He kicked himself under the table for not leading the life he saw others live, just happily floating along day by day with a Cheshire cat grin.
Again John was pulled back from his little world of self-pity with the words, “have you chosen yet or do you need another minute”? John’s heart quickened when he heard those words, knowing he had already failed to study the menu and that minute was always a sign that meant “I will come back when I can” sent him racing though the menu for something familiar as the hunger pains of an almost five hour flight started to catch up to him. In-between rapidly scanning items on the menu while ignoring the tapping the of the waiters pen against the note pad. John found time to curse the airline that brought him here for stopping their food service and replacing it with a carbohydrate packed “snack box” that provided almost no nutritional value.
Then just before the waiter could pivot and make his exit leaving John to wonder of his return, he blurted out “chief salad with Italian dressing”. The now impatient waiter mid pivoted jotted the request down on the well-worn note pad that he keep stored in the black apron as he headed back to the kitchen leaving John alone again to stare into rainy Seattle night.
As the night, stared back at John he cursed himself for not living in the moment, and thought again about the homeless man and his hunger pains that would go unaddressed this evening unlike John’s. When he thought of hunger, he could not help but think back upon his first trip to India. The sea of humanity seemed to be everywhere he went and it throbbed relentlessly be it day or night. One of his strongest memories was sitting on a traffic packed road if you could even call it that during a sweltering summer day in Bangalore at a dead stop. John was peering out the side window when he noticed a man standing in the communal ditch up past his knees in human excrement as what appeared to be his young son looked on.
The man was shoveling out the ditch, which was now over full of human waste; he would lift his makeshift shovel and toss its contents into the road next to car John was grid locked in. When the waste landed near the door, it would make a defined sound then splatter on to the car. Over and over this man would shovel away tossing his work product into the street as John was compelled to look on. The sight, sound and smell made John ill, he could feel his stomach turn, and he wanted to vomit however felt the need to retain his composure. What made it worse is John then realized why the man was doing what he was doing, as once tossed into the road; the waste would dry in the scorching midday sunlight then would be carried away air born by the swift winds of the region. In reality John came to understand he was breathing in the results of this, human excrement blowing in the wind which caused John to double over from the pain of nauseated stomach and disbelief of what he was experiencing!
Just as John was reliving this event over in his mind’s eye, he was snapped back into the moment as the waiter arrived with John’s order. His eyes darted upward to meet those of the waiters that now was standing over him. By this time the waiter noticed a rather peeked look in John’s face and assumed it simply had to do with him being ill prepared for the cold and rain. Little did he understand what was racing though John’s mind and the he had experienced so far away, or what John was feeling at the time.
After setting the plate in form of John and asking all the typical questions wait staff do such as “is everything to your liking” or “can I get you anything else”? He took his leave of John and attended to other patrons who had just been seated. John stared for a moment at his food and tried in vain to shake the last thoughts from his head. However instead those thoughts simply changed to the roadside beggars he had seen on the same road as the man shoveling. Looking like so horrible mix of man and crab with severely contorted arms and legs. John at this time had to pull himself back as this wasn’t movies, these poor souls where people just like he however he knew while he had a plane ticket in his pocket they didn’t and their life’s were to end far differently than his.
As John stared into space with these images rolling over and over in his head, he then heard the familiar line, “everything tasting alright”? He quickly looked down noting he hadn’t eaten anything and snapped his gaze back to the waiter now standing next to him with a makeshift smile on his face noticing the same. John managed to stammer, “yes, yes it is”, at which point the young waiter smiled at John took his leave back toward the kitchen and John lifted his fork and begin to eat.
As John settled in to his meal, the homeless man creped quietly back into his mind, starting in the back and working forward. John tried to shake it off by looking at the morning paper with coffee stains that had been discarded by the last patron. He thought of the homeless man being discarded from society, he thought of man cleaning the ditch, the crab like people alongside the road as all being discarded from society. As John’s mind continued spin deeper into a self-absorbed series of thoughts, his first trip to China surfaced above them all. He felt compelled to set his folk down as tear came to the corner of his eye.
One night while on the way to a business dinner he was crossing the Huangpu river from PuDong province into PuShi by taxi cab with several associates. The group became a bit turned around in the back streets of the older province so the driver stopped the cab and at first tiring to abandon his fairs in the middle of the road. During this time, a heated discussion ensued with one the mandarin speaking associates and the driver. As John watched the rapid exchange of words, he stepped closer to the curb where two figures from the shadows dared towards him. John not initially seeing them kept moving to what he felt was the safety of the roadside as heated foreign words continued in front of him.
It was then that he felt another body press against his; this startled John and he recoiled, his heart now racing and adrenaline flowing he had nowhere to go. In this same moment, he saw the second figure from shadows now appear under the streetlight. It was a frail old Chinese woman dressed in tattered clothes screaming and crying, arms flailing in the air, at the same moment the first body once again pressed into Johns. This time it attempted to hand or more appropriately push something upon John. He looked down and noticed it was bundle of rags, or at first, it appeared so in the dark fringes of the antiquated street light. Then the bundle made noise and to Johns horror realized, this was a young Chinese woman attempting to push her baby into John’s arms and flee!
As this thought enter John’s conciseness, he felt a strong almost over powering tug on his other arm pulling him away from the situation he had gotten himself into. As he step back the colleague who been engaged in heated words with the taxi cab driver was shout at this now sobbing young girl who was pleading with him. At his time the second figure, the older woman had now entered the melee and John was pushed back toward the cab and told to swiftly enter and close the door. Shortly after, the other had joined him the cab and the car had started to now move away from the two woman and baby who remained in the road still crying and fierce verbal exchange.
Still reeling from what just had happened, John turned to his friend who sternly instructed not to walk with his hands in front of him. A puzzled look came across his face, and upon seeing this, John’s friend started to explain. The younger woman was trying to give John her baby, as she couldn’t afford to feed it, stood better chance at life with a foreigner then starving there. The older woman as it turned out was the younger woman’s mother who had been pleading with her daughter not to surrender the child. He then went to explain John was luckily as it common for unsuspecting foreigners end up holding a child as the mother flees and then have to deal with the unfriendly authorities to explain the situation, thus walking with ones hands to the side or back made it difficult for quick abandonment’s.
As John finished his meal, the tears streaming down the face of the young girl as forcibly tried to hand John her child wrapped in tattered rages raged in the forefront of his mind. It had been over two years and he wondered if the child was still alive, had the mother succeed in giving up her child to a stranger? All of this racing though John’s mind as he heard, “ I will be your cashier this evening and will take this up when you’re ready”. Again, John looked and there as the waiter with that same makeshift smile setting a well-worn black polio on the table with the bill sticking from the top.
John reached into his pocked, pulled out his wallet and provided the waiter with his credit card then in his typically hest disappeared once again back toward the kitchen leaving John once again to stare at his reflection in the now darkening window. During these moments of waiting, he looked down at his bill fold and noticed all the one dollar bills he had stashed away all in a neat order just the way he liked them. All facing forward, in the same direction and corners neatly extended and not folded. During this time of admiration, the waiter quietly returned with the black polio and John card which were presented to him with a pen and the atypical instructions he heard a thousand times before about which copy he was to leave and which to take.
John completed the gratuity section of the check and proudly signed his name in a typically sloppy fashion, which his wife hated. He then slipped the card back into its slot as all of John’s cards had their own slot in his wallet along with receipted marked “customer copy” into the back fold where he always put things like this and then returned it to his back pocket. After taking one last drink of tea from a now near empty glass, he had again so wished they had carried his brand of soda so he had not had to suffice with ice tea as it took so much away from the meal.
He then stood up, making his way to the door; where John stole a quick glance again around the restaurant to only to see the various patrons partaking in their meal while having discussions about the day’s events as he stepped outside. The rain now appeared to have stopped and the wind had drifted into a light comfortable breeze. John stood in place for moment as the still cool night air nipped at him and looked upward. He saw stars…Stars