Updated: Jun 15
He sat next to me on a bench in a peanut park downtown where I was waiting for a friend.
“Hi. What’s your name?” he asked, as he pulled a bag of tobacco and rolling papers from his pocket.
I told him my name was Ron. I lied. I was in that kind of mood.
“Hi, I’m Dave,” he said in a voice that let me know he was not exactly there in his entirety.
He was all gums and obviously on hard times.
“I’m sorry if I’m making you feel uncomfortable,” he said.
“You’re not,” I lied.
“I roll my own cigarettes because the brands are so goddamn expensive. I smoked Marlboros and Newports when I had money, but I can’t afford to smoke that shit now.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” I replied so as not to be rude while I mentally cursed the person for whom I was waiting and responsible for my sitting here.
“Ya know, it’s funny,” said Dave. “You can’t smoke anywhere these days. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up. Back then, you could smoke any place you wanted. My high school even had a room where we could smoke as long as you were 16.”
“Mine had one too,” I said, wishing I hadn’t and wondering why I did.
“You did? How old are you?”
“I’m 49,” Dave said in a laugh that quickly turned in to an unhealthy cough.
I looked at my phone. My friend was now 30 minutes late. My friend was always late, which meant I was frequently meeting people like Dave.
“Hi, I’m Dave. What’s your name?”
Oh shit. Seriously?
I changed my name this time. Why not?
“Carl,” I replied.
“Hi, Carl. I’m Dave.”
Two men, I’m guessing in their late 60s, sat at a picnic table about 12 feet away playing chess, and one of them looked at me and shook his head in disgust. I sensed he frequented the park regularly, was familiar with Dave and not a fan.
“Did you know Eddie Van Halen died yesterday?” Dave asked me.
“Yes, I know.”
“He was awesome,” Dave said.
“Yeah, the guy could play.”
“I wish I saw him play in person,” Dave sighed.
“I saw him a few times while growing up. I was even in a band that played some Van Halen,” I replied. For some reason, I was now providing Dave with stories of my glory days.
“I was in a band that played Van Halen too,” Dave said excitedly. “Van Halen, Quite Riot, Ozzy… I was a drummer.”
I had only known Dave for just a few minutes, but I could not picture him behind a drum kit. But I had been wrong before.
“They eventually kicked me out of the band,” Dave said, shaking his head.
“Drinking… I was always drunk then. I was drunk for years.”
Now that I could picture.
“I regret it,” Dave continued. “I regret it to this day.”
He rolled himself another cigarette.
“I don’t play drums anymore,” Dave said, pausing for a moment. “But I still drink,” he added, laughing himself into another phlegmy cough.
“I’m sorry if I’m making you feel uncomfortable,” Dave said again.
“You’re not,” I replied.
“You know, yesterday I was down sitting along the river and I was feeding the birds pumpkin seeds. I got kind of worried that they were going to choke on them. I wondered whether they were too big. But they didn’t choke. They ate ‘em.”
I didn’t reply because I didn’t know what to say. I looked at my phone. My friend was setting a new record for tardiness.
“Hi, I’m Dave.”
“Yes, we met already,” I said. “I’m Carl.”
“Damn, Carl,” Dave replied, slapping his leg in remembrance. “Right, right, I remember you. Carl, right, how’s it going?”
A man in the dark blue suit, white oxford, and light blue tie, crossed the street and headed our way from the federal courthouse across the street. Dave watched him closely as he made his way through the park and eventually past us.
“Guy looks like he works on Wall Street,” said Dave. “I always wanted to work on Wall Street. That was my goal. I think I still could. Someday… someday I will.”
Personally, I did not see it. But, who was I too disagree? Who was I to shit all over another man’s dream?
Dave pulled out his bag of tobacco and papers and started to roll himself another smoke. Rounding the corner on the sidewalk from Broadway was my friend, finally.
“I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable,” Dave said.
“It’s been nice talking to you,” he said.
“Same here, Dave,” I replied.
I stood up from my bench and pointed in the direction of my friend. “I gotta get going,” I said.
“Hey,” Dave said. “I really, really hate to ask this…”
I knew what was coming and I already had my billfold out.
“… but would you mind sparing a few bucks? My check hasn’t come in yet and I wanna get something to eat.”
I didn’t care what his story was. He didn’t owe me one. I don’t know a lot, but I know there aren’t many degrees of separation between Dave and me. I know there are some who insist you should never give someone on the street anything because they’ll spend it on booze or dope. But that was their business, right? I mean, I think Jesus would just want to know if you tried to help, right? That was my end of the bargain. What someone else did with that help was on them.
I handed Dave three dollars. The man playing chess shook his head.
“Oh, thanks a lot man. I really appreciate it. And I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable.”
“Nonsense. Have a good day.”
I walked out of the park toward my friend. Dave walked off too, in a direction different from mine. Maybe he was on his way for some food.
Maybe he was headed to Wall Street.