The Man with a Smile

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A homeless man explains his philosophy of life in a chance encounter with a do-gooder.

Submitted: July 04, 2012

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Submitted: July 04, 2012

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So many strangers, dressed in their suits and holding their briefcases, forever rushing off to their important meetings. I observed them every day waiting impatiently for the walk sign to let them cross the street, clutching their starbucks close to their lips and anxiously or confidently planning their days. I heard the honking of horns and smelled the exaust and decomposition of garbage trucks. Once in a while I would take a gander to McPherson or Farragut squares, where there were lillies in spring and people reading the newspaper on benches. I went also to Laffayete square, where the White House stood with its quaint austerity, but I never wondered what was happening inside it. Instead I'd observe the tourists gazing in wonder or even disappointment; it was, after all, a lackluster seat for the world's most powerful person.

Most of the time, then as now, I spent sitting in my corner on K and 16th st NW with my hat out and my sign reading "homeless: thank you" scrawled on some cardboard as neatly as I could manage with an old sharpy I'd found in the grass at McPherson square. I sat, and I sometimes collected as much as $30 so I could go to 7-11 or Starbucks and celebrate with a treat. If I had something left over, as on the $30 days, I'd buy a tall boy at the convenience store and drink it huddled up in my blanket so as not to attract the attention of the police.

Mostly I didn't come to recognize the people that passed me by, but there were some faces I came to expect. There was one gentleman who came regularly, nearly daily, and usually dropped something in my hat. He always gave me a warm smile but never said anything, and I think his giving satisfied him.

There was also a young lady who would sometimes ask if I'd eaten and, if I said no, come back in a little while with a muffin or some soup in winter. She was pretty but not beautiful, a lean face with simple lines, and she was always putting her best foot forward in life, one could tell. Her eyes had a faraway look to them, as if there was always something troubling that she was fixed on. But then there was her smile to draw you in and that made the worry in her eyes all the more alluring. "She would've made a fine partner," I thought one day, "had life been different for me."

Now I definitely didn't think "had life been better for me" because I didn't see my present situation as any worse than the other situations I'd had in life. In fact, I was quite a bit happier than I'd been most of my life, as I am now, and the fact that I live on the border between life and death and in utter poverty is only an inconvenience in my mind. I have the most important things I need: freedom, clarity of mind, and relative health. The only thing really lacking is some decent companionship. In fact, I was then and am now often quite lonely. But that is unimportant. It is merely the sacrifice required for those good things I mentioned.

One day in late spring some two years ago, there was a man in his work clothes who caught my eye as he walked down the street. He wore a button up shirt and slacks, nothing too austere, and had short brown hair with a relatively handsome face. He stopped at the corner on my street and waited for the walk sign to turn. Waiting with hands in his pockets, he turned this way and that slowly, looking around to occupy himself while he waited. He noticed me, and taking me in, turned away after a moment. The walk sign changed and he didn't walk across the street but rather turned his view back towards me and, seeing that I was watching him, started walking in my direction.

Without saying a word, he sat down crosslegged next to me and my HQ of blanket, hat, sign, and an old coke bottle that was nearly empty of the water I'd filled it with.

"Hi," he said.

"Hello."

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Andrew" I said.

He said, "hungry?" and I thought, not really, but I'll lie to see what I might get from him.

"A little," I said.

"Cmon, let's get something to eat."

And he stood up, waiting for me to follow suit. I slowly rose, feeling the age and the bones and the unused muscles.

I followed him down four blocks, took a right, and another two blocks. We entered a dark tavern that had no sign at the front and descended some stairs into a dirty old door. We sat down without waiting for a hostess at a quiet table in the corner. I don't know what day it was, but it mustn't have been a weekend because the place was nearly empty.

"Burger?" he asked. "Sure," I replied. "Thank you." I felt my long beard with my hand and was suddenly conscious of my smell, feeling the coolness of the air conditioning, the setting at once unfamiliar and nostalgic.

"This is the kind of place I used to like," I said.

"Do you like it now?" he asked, being polite and waiting for my response.

"Yeah, yeah, it's just ... been awhile. Tell me, what's up with you?" I said.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, why? Why are you doing this?"

"Why not? You need to eat. I'm not busy, I have money. I'd like to help," he said.

We sat quietly a few moments and the waiter came, and the man ordered a burger for me and himself and the waiter was gone.

"Would you like a drink? Beer?" he asked.

"You're gonna buy me a beer?" I said.

"Sure, you're a man, and I assume you like beer."

"You're right. That would be wonderful. It's damn hot out there today." I said.

"I know it. How about a nice beer? I'm in a good mood today. We deserve something nice." And he waved the waiter over and ordered two of something I'd never heard of.

We continued to sit in silence and the waiter came over with the beers, which we both gulped healthily. Finally he leaned over and said, "So. What's YOUR deal? Tell me about yourself. You seem an intelligent enough guy, you don't seem crazy. What's up with you?"

"Nothing. I'm not crazy, as you observe, and I assure you I'm intelligent. Mind you I'm not the brightest of the bunch but I think I'm somewhere in the top quarter. You're wondering why I'm homeless? Well, that's a long story."

"I'm here, I have nowhere else to be, and I'm curious. Can you give me a little? I want to know something about you," he said.

"Well, for one thing, I used to be like you."

"How do you mean?"

"You know, I went to University, I had a good job, wife, house, car, the whole thing."

"Wow, I guess you do know me pretty well."

"No offense, it's just... obvious. You look sort of like I used to."

The man laughed. "So, if you had all that stuff once, what happened? How'd you lose it?"

I gave a sort of grunt in retort. "I didn't lose it. I gave it up."

"Gave it up? Why?"

"Well, my priorities... changed," I said.

"How's that?"

I sighed. I had to decide if I really wanted to tell all this to the man who had bought me a burger and a beer. He was a perfectly pleasant chap, kind to ask about me, but it might get tiresome, I thought. I'll see if I can get a couple more beers from him and maybe even have a good time.

I said, "I wasn't happy. I wasn't ever happy. I was working day and night to sustain the dream, to keep the house and the car and the wife. It wasn't a matter of beginning to suspect that something was wrong; I knew something was wrong. It was more that I began to suspect what was wrong."

The man looked genuinely interested now. He had drained his beer and summoned the waiter over, getting us two more beers. "Really fine beer that is. Don't you think?" he finally said as the waiter fetched the drinks.

"Absolutely. Delicious," I replied, waiting for him to get back to our conversation. I was starting to enjoy myself.

"So where were we? Yes. You weren't happy. But you started to understand why?"

"I had a hunch. It started as a hunch and slowly morphed into a conviction." I paused, formulating my next words. "It emerged that it was a question of freedom. I was sacrificing my freedom to maintain my house, etc, and what I wanted more than anything else, every day, what I yearned for during hours in meetings and on the computer was the freedom to go where I want, and do what I want. It felt like prison, really." I let out the remaining air in my lungs, not really pleased with my explanation.

"I think I understand. Everyone feels that way sometimes. Often, even. But we all have to work. Or at least that's what we tell ourselves. We all have to work so we can eat and be comfortable," he concluded.

"That's exactly the point. We all have to work so that we can eat and be comfortable. Every man has to decide for himself what's more important: food and comfort, or the freedom to go wherever and do and be whatever you choose. But I didn't fully understand this at first. You see, it's not a simple as that."

"Ok, what else is there? I have to say, I understand your sentiment. But for me, working hard can be its own reward," he said thoughtfully. A gentle, thoughtful man he was turning out to be.

"That's exactly it. Doing something that satisfies you. You have to do what satisfied you..." and I stopped.

"But your work didn't satisfy you?"

"Well, it did. But not exactly. It satisfied some things in me, like my ego. I felt proud of myself for keeping my life and my wife's floating above water. I felt proud when my bosses praised me. But I also felt angry when they didn't."

"I know what you mean."

"My whole life was about stroking my own ego. When I woke up in the morning, I tried to think of how I would use the day to make myself feel good. I had to prove that I was superior to others. I had to show that I was really something special."

"Huh," the man said. "I see that, and it's totally true. But isn't that just life? I mean, we can't exactly escape our egos, I think. That is what being human entails."

"That's right. You can't escape it. At least I can't. But I found a different kind of work."

"Oh really? What was that?"

"I found the work of being happy. That's what I gave it all up for. Some people are artists, and they get self-satisfaction from creating and being recognized or even just recognizing themselves. I've come to feel self-satisfaction from just smiling and appreciating things. And I've found I can do that a whole lot better when I have my freedom."

"Interesting," the man said. "Sounds very Buddhist."

"Yes and no. Buddhism has a concrete path to happiness. It's an end with a means. I practice the means of happiness, and either it's also an end or I don't know what the end is. Death, I suppose."

"Well. One thing's for sure. You are an interesting guy. Where will you sleep tonight?" he asked.

"Same place you found me."

"Will you be okay?"

"Just fine. Better than fine. I'll be the amusedneighborhood homeless man. The man with a smile."


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