Pocket Change

Sometimes when I’m walking home from work, I’ll see a guy I call Scarecrow.  Most of the times I’ve seen him, he stands in the strip of grass by the fence that separates Fulton Street from I-70, on the east side of Third Street.  I guess he panhandles there, but I’ve never seen him ask anyone for money.  As far as I can tell, he just picks a car stopped at the light and stares at it, and when the car pulls away after the light’s turned green, he points to it and looks away, as if he’s trying to tell some invisible accomplice, “That’s the one.”

I said that Scarecrow stands alongside Fulton most of the time that I see him.  That’s because sometimes I’ve seen him standing in the middle of Fulton during the evening rush hour, blocking the traffic heading to the I-70 onramp, looking confused amidst a chorus of honking horns. Other times, I’ve seen him cross the steady current of traffic headed south on Third, wait for the light to change, and then walk across the cars headed west on Fulton, causing ripples in the car flow as the drivers swerve to avoid him.

I should also clarify that he doesn’t really stand, so much as he sways.  I’ve never seen him fall, but it usually seems like he’s about go down.  His torso swivels back and forth — to the point where he’s bending back 45 degrees then suddenly bending completely forward, always staring or pointing — with his legs rooted firmly in the ground, like a scarecrow flailing in the wind.  And he doesn’t walk across moving traffic so much as he stumbles, making the same swiveling motion with his torso but occasionally taking a knee before steadying himself to the point where he can get back up and move forward.

He’s got to be on some kind of drug, but I don’t know what.  I do know that every time I see him, I think that it’s a miracle he’s still alive.

Anyway, one day while walking south along Third, I saw Scarecrow stumbling on the sidewalk ahead of me, just north of Fulton.  I slowed my pace, hoping he’d get moving again before I reached his spot, and I would’ve avoided him if he hadn’t stopped next to a light pole just off the left curb of the sidewalk to pull down his rolled up pants legs.

I was on the far right of the sidewalk and was just about to pass him when he suddenly stood straight up and turned around to face me.  Startled, I stopped for a moment, and he approached me.  I got my first good, closeup view of him.  His hair was long and bushy, but not necessarily unkempt, and his clothes looked old, but clean and well cared for.  He wasn’t swaying at that moment, but his right leg made a kinetic, wiggling motion that seemed synced with the constant chewing motion that his mouth made.  He rubbed his hands together every few moments.  His whole body seemed restless, except for his eyes, which were steady and fixed determinedly on my own.

“Hey man, hey man,” he said.  His voice sounded relaxed, not pleading like I had expected.

“What do you need?” I said.  I already had excuses prepared to explain why I couldn’t give him what he was looking for.  First on the list was to say that I was sorry, but I didn’t have any cash on me.  Second was that I myself was broke and had just gotten fired from my job.  I’ll spare you the others, but trust me when I tell you that it’s easy to make up stories the farther away you get from reality.

“Hey man,” he said again.  It was like he didn’t realize he had my attention.  We’d only been talking for a moment, but I was ready to get this conversation over with.

“Yeah?” I said.

“Hey man, hey man, can I ask you something?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “What do you need?”  I was two seconds from walking away.

“Hey man,” he said to me, still looking me straight in the eyes.  “All I want is the truth.”

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