"You can smell that guy all the way from here!" This was the outraged declaration that broke my focus from the book I was reading. I looked up and sure enough he was talking to me, a rumpled middle-aged man standing there expecting a reaction. So I said, "Oh."
I actually couldn't smell anything, but I did look in the direction his thumb indicated. Down near the front of the McDonald's I saw a pile of blankets heaped on a chair. After a moment I noticed the pile of blankets had legs, and then I quickly realized it was a man slumped over the table in front of him. Nearby on the table was an open laptop. While browsing the internet he had fallen asleep. A homeless guy with a laptop, something new.
Evidently I wasn't required to say anything else. The middle-aged man walked past me to the rest room. But if he did expect something more from me, I probably would have said, "So what?"
As referenced in the title above (based on an advertising jingle no one under the age of 45 will recognize), most weekday mornings I have breakfast at a McDonald's, most often the one in Boston's Kenmore Square. I have known for a long time that in the city McDonald's restaurants serve as haunts for the homeless, but that has never deterred me from breakfasting in them. I usually roll in between six-thirty and seven o'clock, and, knowing that the indigent by definition keep strange hours, I fully expect the company of two or more unfortunates already seated nursing their coffees and mumbling to themselves.
For me, their presence is mostly atmosphere and not much more than that. I became inured to them a long time ago. I'm not a homeless advocate, I don't despise them, I maybe feel a little sorry for them, but deep down in my heart of cold granite I don't trouble myself about them. Maybe there's a little of the "there but for the grace of God" mixed in. I don't wish them ill, but I do wish they wouldn't beg, particularly while I'm seated in a restaurant eating a meal.
One time while engrossed in my book, a man in a wheelchair pulled up alongside my table as if docking a boat and started asking me for money. I cut him off, rolled my eyes, told him I was trying to eat my breakfast for God's sakes, and asked him to please leave me in peace. I think a dispassionate viewer of the scene would have judged me a complete dick about the whole matter. Hell, if it was someone else and I was the observer, I probably would have thought him a complete dick, too. Anyway, the man in the wheelchair didn't budge. He quoted a Bible verse or two and told me he was providing me an opportunity to demonstrate a little human Christian kindness, some welcome nourishment for my soul, and he, a humble servant of the Lord, was willing to abase himself for my spiritual benefit. That's the short version. He in fact went on and on in this way until it became quite plain that he wouldn't leave until my soul got properly nourished. Finally, beaten but still rolling my eyes and huffing and puffing, I fished from my pocket all the change I had, which he accepted in a speech which I tried to shorten with interjections of, "Okay . . . okay . . . thank you . . . yes . . . okay . . . we're done now . . . okay."
There's another homeless man I see nearly every morning who I actually like and wouldn't mind befriending. I know his whole story because he talks on his cell phone in a carrying "telephone voice" from the moment he sits down. His main two interlocutors seem to be his mother and a social worker. I know he lives in a shelter and is working to get better housing through "Father Bill." I know he's a born-again Christian, I know he plays the saxophone and recently scraped his pennies together to get his instrument overhauled. I'm convinced he's trying really hard to be a solid citizen.
The other McDonald's I go to is the one near Park Street Station and that one is even more of a homeless haven. A shelter called Bridge Over Troubled Water is only a block or so away. There you encounter the potentially dangerous types. They tend to be loud talkers and sometimes I can't help listening. I once saw a coterie gathered around a man who had just completed a fifteen year stretch in prison . . . which I imagine in their world is like graduating Oxford. You could tell he enjoyed rock star status and, let's face it, there is a certain appeal ex-jailbirds have for the law-abiding as well. I had my antenna up. He fairly held court and even told a few stories about prison which, after a year's time, I regret I can't remember. But, brother, he looked tough.
Just the other day I was in the Park Street McDonald's and, moments after having seated myself, a whole gang of miscreants in their twenties descended upon my area like the after-party to some notable event. One of them even purchased a coffee to show they were patrons. I heard stories of the places they had been kicked out of, how "lit" they were last night, and what type of people they liked to rob. You could tell they didn't identify themselves as losers, but rather as rebels, proud square pegs disdainful of a round-holed world. No doubt a quick inspection of their street credentials would have proved everything in order. I imagine that to them, workaday stiffs like myself are the real losers. Perhaps there's something to it, maybe my mundane existence, this eternal punch clock life I live, is something I've been brainwashed into thinking is preferable to sleeping in shelters and always being broke. I'll have to give that matter a bit more thought. In the meantime, I'll continue to frequent the only acceptable place where our two worlds intersect. And lovin' it.