Coffee in had, 9:30 AM, I was studying a fixie in a bike shop window when this guy comes round the corner, stops, and asks if he can ask me something. I look him over—20oz Starbucks cup, cigarette, faux fur vest, shaved head—and think, what’s this guy want. Reluctantly, I say yes, but keep sipping my coffee, as if this is going to protect me some how.
“I’m a street artist and I’m trying to get something together so I can buy a new shirt at Value Village. You see my shoes, ” he points to his Docs, “these are Super Glued together.” I could see an opaque bead of something between sole and shoe leather.
“It works,” I said—one should be encouraging and he did do a good job.
“Can I do a poem for you? If you like it you can give me something,” he says in a kind of half audible voice. Maybe he’s been up all night, he has the look of the tweaker, a little shifty. Then again maybe he’s just nervous, or maybe he’s hitting on me. What ever it is, he has the look of someone who lives on the rough edge but wants something soft like a sonnet without the criticism that comes with poetry.
“Sure,” I say. Poetry can’t hurt, even if it comes from a stranger on an empty street.
“Oh, my cigarette is bothering you.”
“I’ll put it out,” and he steps back and puts it out on the side walk. Its a sympathetic moment and he seems to really care about his listener. “Its a love poem about the world. I write poems about love so I can change the world…no, I don’t know if I can do that, he laughs. At least he knows his limits. He closes his eyes for a moment then starts and as advertised its about love, about tenderness and has a hip-hop edge, almost musical. It isn’t a complicated poem, but I can’t remember it now, having left it on the street that generated it. Yet the experience of it is filled with earnestness and sympathy, a belief that this poem, this moment is a bond, an experience that we have to have and will take us beyond the street corner.I don’t so much like the poem as the idea of the poem on the street corner.
He stops. It is awkward, silent, as he looks at me: too much direct eye contact. And I say what you have to say, “Its good.” Another pause, because I don’t know what our contract was. What was I supposed to pay him?
“So can you help me out?” he asks, but is still quiet.
I feel like my ears are plugged. Did I hear him right? I dig down in my pocket: 22 cents. “All I have is this I say,” as I stretch out my hand. It seems insulting.
“Any thing helps. But you could help me buy new shirt.”
I don’t want to buy him a shirt. It costs too much and now we are back to the moment when I was first looking in the window, thinking what does he want. There is another pause as he realizes I’m breaking the contract.
“I can’t,” I say.
He turns and I say good luck. He’s disappointed and I as I watch him walk he passes by the Value Village without even looking at the window displays.