I frequently walk through the park. Quickly. The “park” is the area between my office building and the train station. I believe there are trees and grass in it. There may also be flowers and benches if I slowed down. There’s garbage cans, garbage that’s missed cans, and homeless people, which are all reasons why I don’t slow down. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 562 points, 2.3 percent today. I was staring at my phone screen as I rushed through the park, late for a Passover meal.
And I begin to fall. At least that was the first thing I notice, falling. It was more like I had stumbled over something that was harder than I thought it would be. Softer than a curb or a stone. Looked like cloth. My pantleg? Could I be getting old and uncoordinated enough to trip over my own feet? Why now? I needed to be somewhere. Why here, in a jungle of homeless men and garbage? I might need help and attention.
I realize I am going to hit the ground, although I am not sure whether the ground was pavement or grass. I thought about my teenage daughter, about how I was no longer allowed in her room to tell her goodnight. About how she asked me to drive her to the movies last night, but when I tried to talk to her this morning from across the breakfast table she yelled at me ‘Get out of my face!’ and ‘Life isn’t fair!’ I wondered what she would think about her falling dad. Would she care about my face?
By instinct, my arms begin to move to protect the impact of the fall on my brain. My wife will be furious. She always has issues when I’m late and today she put a lot of effort, so we can have guests over for the holiday. Whatever I end up looking like, I know she’ll be in my space yelling at me.
I bounce slightly as I hit the ground facedown. I lie next to what I tripped over, a man lying on the grass. We are lying face-to-face, parallel to each other less than two feet apart. He’s keeping warm in an old dark blue sleeping bag. I’m keeping warm in a winter coat.
He appears to be around 30 years old, with facial hair that has been growing for about two weeks. He needs to wash, but his teeth look white and his odor is surprisingly not unpleasant. I’m bleeding from my right palm and from pebbles embedded in the right side of my chin.
I want to scream. A little bit from the pain. A lot from this man suddenly being in my space, and in my face. A homeless man, with who knows what history and what psychiatric issues, is in a bag just feet from me. I stay silent. If I scream, will he also scream? Will he bite me to shut me up? Does he have a knife to quiet me?
Surprisingly, his breathe is also fresh when he breaks the short silence: “How’s it going, man?”
There’s some pain in my neck as I move my head for the first time and brush off the pebbles from my chin. “That was not a graceful fall.”
“Dude! You’re bleeding. I’ll be right back!” And he disappears into his sleeping bag. Less than a minute later a hand sticks out of the top of the sleeping bag with a stack of gauze pads. I take the stack. And then a thicker stack appears. And then another. Finally, he reappears with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
After the bleeding stops, we both notice my cell phone still lies between us with news of the Dow Jones drop. I’m embarrassed when he asks, “You worried about your stocks?”
“I guess you’ve got more pressing concerns.”
“Although I worry more about broader market indices than the Dow Jones, what really concerns me is the idea of a trade war if they don’t handle tariffs carefully enough.”
“If you don’t own stocks, why should you worry about trade wars?”
“I worry about all wars. They aren’t winnable anymore, and everyone suffers.” He replies. “We all lose in an all-out trade war, but maybe it only a smokescreen for worse, a coming nuclear war. We would all lose BIG TIME in that one.” As my face dropped in response, he continues: “Dude, I didn’t mean to bring you down. How about some food to lighten the mood and your fall?”
I need to be in my warm home, as I am already extremely late and feeling guilty about my obligations to my daughter and wife. The sun is setting in a park I don’t feel safe in. I have to go. And I say, “Sure.” His face lights up at the notion of me staying a little longer. He disappears back into the sleeping bag, reemerging with a knife and an orange. We share the orange, and I leave for home.
My wife is furious. My daughter is giving me the silent treatment. When I sit down at the table the service already is in progress. I feel my cousin’s gaze focus on me as he holds up a slice of matzah and chants Halachma Anya from the Passover Seder: This is the bread of affliction. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate. The chant reminds us of our obligation to ensure that none are hungry, and all are celebrating freedom on this special night.
Damn! How could I have not invited him home with me for a meal? What kind of man am I? How can I face myself? Without saying a word, I grab my coat and sprint back toward the train station.
I make it two blocks. Thick tears roll down my cheeks, my shins hurt from jogging in shoes, and my coat blows in the now gusting wind. I stop when I realize the fruitlessness of my effort. Even if he agrees to the meal, it would be too late by the time we made it back. I ruined enough of the evening for everyone.
Now on my way home from work, I don’t walk quickly through the park anymore. I stroll, and I observe. I haven’t seen the man in the dark blue sleeping bag again. I have seen flowers.
Jonathan Savrin writes memoirs and short stories about unusual and stressful situations that are encountered during a “normal” life. After retiring as an environmental scientist with the New Jersey Department of Health, he honed his interest in writing by taking workshops at Drexel and Stockton and by joining writing groups in Mercer and Bucks counties. He lives in Yardley.