Concrete by R Dean Johnson
We were leaving Canter’s Deli, each of us with a girl, when Liam taught me the trick. I don’t really remember the girls now, but the bums, they were everywhere outside. Three in the morning, bums four deep on the sidewalk. It made sense, I guess. Where else would they be on a Friday night but outside a 24-hour place?
The girls were by the door, waiting for us to get through the line of people tired and full and finally sleepy—just wanting to pay and get out of there, get to our soft beds. We were maybe two people from the register when Liam said, “Watch this guy.” He said it in a low voice, not really a whisper but so only I could hear. He didn’t say which guy or point or nod, didn’t even say at first why I should watch him. But a moment after the words were at my ear, Liam froze and a guy in those jeans with the manufactured frays stepped from the register. The guy was closing in on the door fast, a wad of cash and coins in one hand, his wallet in the other.
We watched the door fling open, warm light pouring out into the dark morning, then Liam said, “What’s he going to say out there when a bum asks for a handout? That he doesn’t have it? It’s right there in his hand.”
“So what?” I said, feeling for my own wallet, finding it, then leaving it there.
Liam is like all those Australians you meet outside Australia, he’s been everywhere, places where the panhandling is even worse, even more desperate than Los Angeles. “What if the bum really does want it for a cup of coffee? Or insulin? Right? Do you say, ‘Sorry, mate, I need these quarters for laundry’?”
I’ve been hit up for cash a thousand times. Everyone has. Sometimes you give. Usually you don’t. Until then, it never seemed to matter.
“It’s not about whether or not you give,” Liam said as we got to the front of the line. “It’s about getting them out of your face on the cheap, right, and not looking like an ass in the process.” He pulled out his wallet and paid for everyone; he insisted. It was his idea to go to Canter’s after the club, and money is never an issue. Everything we do is sport. That’s what Liam always says. No worries. Just fun & games. Just sport.
Liam took the change, jamming the bills and his wallet down his front pocket before taking a step, then we collected the girls. He opened his hand at the door to show me the coins he’d kept out, a couple quarters and a dime. I buttoned my coat. February in Los Angeles isn’t exactly fur coat weather, but it can get hard-concrete cold.
As soon as we stepped out the door the bums were on us. “Can you spare a dollar?” one said and Liam opened his free hand, apologetic. “This is all I got left, mate. It’s yours if you want it.”
The bum took the coins. Didn’t ask for more.
A different one hit me up and I pulled some loose change out of my pocket. “Here you go.”
“Ah, that’s just a start my man.”
The girl on my arm—red hair I remember now because it made her so alive in my peripheral, so on top of me and scrutinizing the whole scene—she ducked her head into my shoulder and neck in this sort of scared, sort of romantic way, and it got me digging out my wallet, bills everywhere, and giving the bum more. A lot more.
“See” Liam said as we got to the car. And I did.
It’s maybe two months later; I’m waiting with my date, a different girl, at the car in a parking lot near The Palace. The Capital Records building is right there across the street, a stack of deli plates reaching up into a marine layer that’s been waiting all day to creep in from the coast. It’s not a good place to wait, but it isn’t our car and God knows where Liam has gone off to.
A bum comes weaving across the lot, headed for us. I don’t have my hands on any change; really, all I want to do is lean against the car and cool off from all the dancing. I’m wearing a brand new shirt and a pair of pants that only come out on weekends, only at night. Who’d believe I don’t have a dollar? So I peer into my wallet like it’s a darkened room. Like I can’t see anything in there and pull a dollar from between two twenties. “That’s all I got left, man. There’s more ATM receipts in there than bills.”
“I hear that,” the bum says and takes the buck.
After he leaves and word gets out, another bum comes over to us. “Let me get this one,” my date says, a brunette, a really nice girl whose name I’m trying not to remember since this is it, the last time I’ll see her because I’m not ready for a nice girl.
She’s excited and cuts off his pitch about the war and his veteran’s benefits running out. She holds out the dollar like it’s an award, like the guy just won a Grammy or something.
“A dollar?” he says staring at the bill. “What the fuck am I going to do with a dollar?” She looks like she might cry, her eyes welling up a little and sparkling like her skirt, so I throw an arm around her. She drops her head to search through her purse for another dollar, or maybe a five, and the bum glances at me without moving his head. He takes a deep breath and his eyes follow the silent exhale to the pavement, and I know it’s an apology. He had to try it. He knows I’ve been paying all night. Knows she must have some money. It would be stupid if he didn’t try. And as a few more bucks come out I squeeze her a little closer, firm but not intimate, and nod to him, let him know it’s okay and that, really, I’m no better.
© R Dean Johnson, 2013
Originally from California, R. Dean Johnson lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Julie Hensley, and their two children. His fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and his essays and stories have appeared in Ascent, Juked, Natural Bridge, New Orleans Review, Santa Clara Review, Slice, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the Bluegrass Writers Studio, the low-residency MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University:creativewriting.eku.edu.
Concrete was read by Ryan Ervin on 6th November 2013