“Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me what time it is?”
An innocent question. Unless it’s 2 a.m. in the bad part of town and it’s just you and a guy who may or may not be rational.
I’m leaving work. It’s been a particularly bad night, even in the land of Bad Nights Are Normal. I don’t want to play anymore.
As I’m walking toward my car in the parking lot across the street, I see a guy coming the opposite direction. I zig, he zags. I’m screwed.
There’s something vaguely terrifying about being trapped in a large, open place with a sketchy stranger. I question my career choice while plotting possible escape routes. Damn those tempo runs. My legs are not excited about a sprint.
He appears to be maybe mid-30s, going on 100. He’s wearing a faded white T-shirt and dirty jeans with a towel draped over his shoulder. He looks like he’s about to cry.
He takes a deep breath. “Look, I’m going to tell you something. I didn’t rehearse this or anything. But I don’t know what to do.”
It’s the same sad story I hear pretty regularly and write about too often, given that I work at Ground Zero for crazy homeless guys. But this one feels different.
He says he’s from Oatmeal. Asks if I’ve heard of it. I explain that sure, I went there a few times for the Run For Your Oats, which was an odd race because it was 3.3 miles. The nuance is lost on him.
He says he just bonded himself out of jail. He’s vague about why he was incarcerated, but it involves his pickup being impounded and a total disbelief that he is in this spot. His eyes are genuinely misty.
He says he has a farm in Oatmeal. He just wants to get home. “Look, I have money,” he says. He pulls out a wad of money from his jeans and waves it. “But I’m 20 dollars short of buying a bus ticket …” His voice trails off. He never asks for money. It’s dark, it’s late. We’re the only people in the world. Just me and this guy in an empty parking lot in a land we’re not all that excited about being in. I don’t know what to do.
I explain that I don’t carry money. I fish around in my pocket and find 20 cents, all the money I have with me. I hand it over and he seems genuinely grateful. I tell him how sorry I am and wish him luck in his journey. He thanks me, still seemingly trying to hold back the tears. Asks again what time it is, and that’s that. I walk to my car as he heads toward the dark bus station.
Is he the world’s greatest scamster? I don’t know. I’ve seen them all. If he is, he is Broadway worthy.
As I drive home, I’m haunted that I didn’t help him. But what can I do? A U-turn.
I go to the ATM of Death downtown and withdraw a 20. I head back to the bus station neighborhood. But he’s gone.
I drive around for about 10 minutes, going along at 10 mph and scrutinizing each person trying to find him. A cop gives me the stare, sizing me up for someone looking for a good time at 2:30, so I give up.
I go home to ice cream, Black Butte and a warm bed. I don’t sleep well.
I tell Mo the story the next morning. She wants to go downtown and try to find him. Mo is a Good Person. But I’m guessing it’s futile. We go to our little hole in the wall Mexican food place instead. We’re the only white guys. When a story on Obama’s immigration speech comes on, the guy busing tables stops and turns up the volume, listening carefully. I think about how everyone is trying to survive, to build a life, to find their way home. Message in a bottle.
I hope he wasn’t scamming me. I hope he made it to Oatmeal. I hope Hallmark eventually stops showing Christmas movies. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending.
I’ve still got that 20 dollar bill in my wallet. Just in case …