I stood on the street corner in ripped jeans and an army green jacket from the second hand store. I held a cardboard sign upon which was written in sharpie: “I’m not starving, I don’t want your money, and I don’t want to change your religion. I’m just a guy holding a sign.” Carefully I clutched the sign with all ten of my fingers as if, were I to drop it on the sidewalk, the cardboard might shatter. Beside me sat a small greasy fishbowl half-filled with coins. A yellow post-it note affixed to the lip of the bowl covered up a chip in the glass; the note read, “Spare change.”
I had already been standing there several hours. It was 1:45am and a steady stream of pedestrians stumbled out of the nearby pub through a swinging glass door. Back when I first arrived and everyone was flocking into the pub, not a single soul paid me the slightest notice, but now, as temporal lobes relaxed in stark contrast with a draconian adherence to bar time’s fatal crow, I (who had no curfew) became an object of curiosity.
The first wave shuttled toward me. These were the responsible drinkers, sober enough to coordinate their exodus in order to reach the convenience store with plenty of time to buy more booze. Their gait sloshed like eddies in a current. Their movements were determined but casual, for they had worked out their scheme ahead of time in meticulous detail. A few of them read my sign and laughed; others knelt down to squint at the note on my bowl. Because many were already pulling leftover cash out of their pockets in anticipation of the countertop horde that would provide them with two or three extra hours of alcohol, I found my fishbowl filled a good deal closer to the rim by the time they’d gone. Attempts to highlight the part of my sign that said, “I don’t want your money”, using the shelf of my hand, proved useless. If one thing terrifies a drunk, it is the prospect of reading.
I stood once more alone, shouldering a capricious breeze and the distant drone of sirens.
Moments later another flummox of patrons put the door of the pub to work. This crew consisted of the evening’s most punctilious drunks—those who longed to stay until the last possible moment, but would never dare to resist the exacting decree of closing time. Shouts accompanied their egress and they spilled out over the sidewalk like jacks and marbles, a few so overtaken by the stampede as to stumble out onto the streets, where they would stop and don the sort of blinking stupor one might see on a victim freshly loosed from the hypnotist’s spell.
These made their way to my side by virtue of that drunken magnetism which leads to shoulder bumps, brawls, and bewildered banging. One or two at a time skidded to a stop, staring at me or through me, groping the invisible viscosity of my personal space, opening their mouths long before selecting their words or realizing whether or not they wanted to speak at all. Several laughed, but not at me. One tried to bum a cigarette, and when I informed him that I’d quit smoking, fished around his pockets for his Old Golds and kindly offered to help me start again. A few college girls tried to puzzle out the deeper meaning behind my cardboard sign, but interrupted their own attempts to ask if I thought they still had time to make it to the store. I told them it was unlikely, but worth a shot, and then gestured to my fishbowl. Whenever I tried this maneuver I was informed, regrettably, that my interlocutor had no spare change. To this I always replied that I would not otherwise have offered.
The last dregs of drunks were those who required forcible ejection from the pub, either physically or through countless warnings and reminders. Many of these expressed surprise and outrage, as if that very day the motion had been passed to impose some unprecedented new law for the sole purpose of cutting into their evening just as things were starting to get good. Muttered curses, grunts, tears and non-sequiter replaced ordinary conversation. A woman who I thought was missing a shoe until I saw the heel sticking out of her purse, asked me if I knew how many trees had died so I could hold up my cardboard sign. Two guys arm-in-arm, without even bothering to slow down for my response, suggested I come home with them. One long haired young man stared deadpan at my fishbowl for so long that I thought he would pass out; but at last his face exploded into a grin and he bent forward, plucking out four quarters. I was delighted until I realized he had left a dollar bill in their place.
All dissolved into the night. Those that could, dragged themselves to bed; those that could not were dragged to bed by others. Those that would not were dragged away by the police. I alone, who had not been in the pub at all, felt uncompelled to go anywhere. At around 3am a bartender locked the swinging glass door behind him and glared at me on the way to his car.
I slid down the wall onto the sidewalk, and propped my sign up against my shins. I pretended to sleep while an elderly homeless man stopped to check me out. After a moment of scrutiny he flicked a finger at the post-it note on my fishbowl. “How’s this working out for you?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said, eyes still shut. “The bowl was empty this morning. Now look at it.”
“Can I have it?” the homeless man said.
“I’d appreciate it,” I replied.
I heard a great jingle of coins and a loud cough, then the scuff of shoes over concrete as the homeless man continued along his way. When I opened my eyes again there sat beside me a mountain of change with a little dollar bill flag peeking out the top, and my fishbowl was gone.