Nighttime. It’s forty-seven degrees in Birmingham. I know this because James Spann says so. I’m pumping gas at a Shell station and eating Cheez-Its.
At the pump beside me, there is a minivan full of loud teenagers. It’s Friday night in Magic City, they are in a good mood. The minivan stereo is blaring dance music loud enough to crack commercial porcelain.
Meanwhile, there is an old man in a tattered tweed coat. His boots have duct tape on the toes. He wears a stocking cap, a long beard, and carries a rucksack. You can smell him as far away as Jackson County.
He approaches the young people.
“‘Scuse me, y’all…” his spiel begins.
And you can tell he’s used this speech several million times. He’s pared the language down to the bare essentials. He asks for money. He makes mention of God. He references military service. He swears he’s sober.
One of the young men stops the man mid-sentence. The young guy is tall, broad, and blonde like Freddie from “Scooby Doo.”
“Listen,” says Freddie. “I’m not giving you any money. Understand?”
He says it just like that. A real hard butt.
The oldster nods. “Yessir, thank you for your time,” he says.
Then, the old man hobbles away and approaches another car. This time he selects a woman in a skirt suit who is dressed as though she has come directly from work.
She is talking on a phone, pumping gas, even though warning labels on the pumps caution that doing these two things simultaneously could turn her into a skirt-suit kabob.
Her car is a black BMW, an M5 Sedan, which costs roughly the equivalent of a tactical grade military helicopter.
She makes eye contact with the old man but doesn’t lower the phone. “Yes? Can I help you?”
He stutters. “Yes’m. I’m… I’m pretty hungry, and I—”
He doesn’t get more than a few words out before she hacks him off at the knees.
“I don’t carry cash,” she says. “Sorry.”
I’m no expert, but she doesn’t look very sorry.
Next, the man approaches a guy pumping gas into a Dodge Ram. Truck Guy is wearing Italian-looking shoes and a puffer vest. His truck has an obligatory Browning sticker on the rear window, and his tire rims are very fancy.
The old man never even gets his first sentence past his lips.
“I can’t give you money,” says Truck Guy. “I don’t know what you’d spend it on.”
“No, sir,” says the old man. “I’m hungry, and—”
“Did you hear me?” Truck Guy says. “I said I can’t. I’m sorry.”
He sure is.
Eventually, the old man has given up. He is seated on the curb, arms folded, and he’s looking into the middle distance. I’ve never known hunger. But I’m pretty sure that’s the look I’d wear if I did.
I am about to approach the man and give him a twenty when someone beats me to it.
A young woman walks out of the convenience store. She is dressed in a Waffle House waitress uniform—blue shirt, yellow name tag, visor. She makes a beeline for the man and hands him a paper box of hot gas-station food, and a steaming Styrofoam cup.
She smiles at the man. Actually smiles. And he smiles his tooth back at her.
He’s not crying, but his voice sounds like he is.
“Oh, you didn’t have to do this, ma’am,” he’s saying between mouthfuls.
“Hush,” she says.
And I’m recalling what a homeless man once told me many years ago. The man said that to be homeless is to be invisible. Nobody sees you or touches you when you’re homeless, the man said. “It’s like you ain’t quite alive,” he explained, “but you ain’t quite dead, neither.”
The old man removes his stocking cap as the woman walks across a nearby parking lot and he shouts into the night air.
“God bless you, ma’am! God bless you so much!”
Took the words right out of my mouth.