I wrote a story long ago called "Random Act." I showed it to one of my aunts as a "here's what I've been doing lately as if you really wanted to know" (but only because my mother, bless her all Ronnie loving all the time heart is dead so I needed a surrogate pat on the back). She asked me something no one else had...where had I found the idea. I told her I'd just made it up, conjured it from whole cloth; she bought my explanation and patted me on the head as I knew she would.
But the truth is, there is no whole cloth; every tale has some connection to it's writer, every fiction hides some personal fact even if nothing more than that gleaned while researching it's subject.
Many years ago I was recently divorced and more depressed than usual. Knowing that my overall mood was dour, that I had little if anything to say of good cheer and that those around me needn't suffer my burdens, I spent a lot of my free time alone. I ate most of my meals in cheap restaurants, loathing to cook for one when I'd cooked for two for so long. But once in a moon I'd treat myself to a fine dining experience as there's nothing better than reading a paperback by candlelight, draped in cloth nappies, sipping a chateneauf du pape or mid priced Riesling, and purposely dipping the wrong fork into shrimp scampi or some regional Japanese concoction.
This particular night I'd driven downtown, far out of my way to a Polish eatery on the "nordeast" side. It had been a long day of hacking out mundane, melodramatic, marketing music and too late for my regular haunts; and though I don't imbibe beyond an occasional glass of wine or yearly beer, I chose this two room, eastern European pub to drown my sorrows in fatty foods.
You could describe my mood as "heavy sigh", only jovial enough to flirt with the waitress as I always do, but far too ponderous to dig into a new novel. So I watched people mostly, an eclectic mix of the painted, elderly, neighborhood matrons with foul mouthed, taxi driver mates, and Brooks Brothers admen and their floozied dates, ruining their livers with fancy drink, and my ears with loud renditions of show tunes sung across the piano bar.
I was thinking long and hard about my life while I picked at some Polish rouladen-esque brisket and sometimes smiling at the couples attempting to air dance a polka while the jukebox played Sinatra or some such.
I felt a little embarrased to be human, to be genetically related to these pandering clowns shouting "look at me! to a deaf crowd, each participant growing ever louder in their quest to be more than just another nobody.
But for some reason what occurred to me was how blessed I'd been to be in the position to watch this dance unencumbered by the desire to flaunt my assets so as to influence people. That I was pretty secure as an individual at that moment, and while lonely perhaps, moderately healthy, wealthy and wise enough to set my failures aside for an evening at a time.
I stayed 'till closing, the bar's ambiance even more entertaining as the night wore on, my smiles growing larger, laughter slightly louder as each minute passed. After leaving 30% to cover my extended stay, I succumbed to the "last call" and made my way to my car for a drive among the city lights.
There's an edginess to the wee hours, slipping from shadow to shadow, witnessing petty crimes and partygoers too addicted to let up no matter what the hour. Much of the first half of my life had been spent here, a street urchin only alive in darkness and the feeble rays of dawn; oblivious to the madness of daylight and the haunted ghouls who pandered their widgety wares day after day. I'd not been back for years, my life now "respectable", my job all consuming. I was so enthused I decided to walk a spell in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city; a coward's instinctual face down of fears long held, a fool in a fool's paradise.
3AM, light snow, 10 degrees and no wind, it was a perfect night for a stroll among the warehouses and rat infested, parking lot shanties that I'd known so well in my former life. Memories bounced off me like so many drops of sleet as I stumbled onto the railroad bridge that separates downtown from the "north side"; land of industry, tenements and subsidized town homes. There I stopped to imagine my father, likely at that moment a few miles up the track, switching out another set of freight trains bound for Chicago and points eastward.
And there I spotted a white bearded man below me, fetaly curled and shivering near the unmanned switchtender shack; a lined, flannel shirt and levis his only protection from the evening's draft.
I called to him, a feeble "yallright?" forced from my now tingling solar plexus as my mind raced to discover my intentions. He only moaned and attempted a roll to no avail, the pool of liquid surrounding his head now more than obvious and wholly uninviting.
What could I do? This was pre cell phone and any public phone not yet yanked from it's box was securely planted in the suburbs. It could have been a ruse. I'd heard of a game called "cat and mouse" wherein one would feign injury so as to draw a Samaritan into range for the "cat" to pounce and "scratch" his valuables to the ground, if not simply drop the fool and take the items from his unconscious body.
But I was here among other reasons, to remove the last vestige of fear from my sorry state, and so a fool I became. I scrambled down the hillside, sliding the last few yards with bare hands as outriggers in the newfallen snow, and made my way to the breathing corpse.
"No cops" he slurred as I tried to lift him away from his own waste. "No cops" I agreed, "but where can I take you?" He pointed toward the bridge where I spied a mound of trash and a huge cardboard box hidden below the rusted pillars and crossbeams.
He was heavy, unable to walk and covered in vomit, and I am no hulkster in spite of my size...so I dragged him the 20 yards to his box, leaving angel prints in the snow as he flailed his arms while we traversed the span. Now I was cold as well and as I never wore gloves or hat, I began to shiver in time with my hobo friend.
A smoker has only one redeeming quality; never without a match. And so I collected a few clumps of McWrappers and spent a few moments tearing dead brush from the nearest hillside, soon creating a fine boy scout fire that we both could wallow in it's heavenly flame unseen by any crossing the tarmac above. It seemed all too much an adventure at the time, like ten year olds dodging through back yards and over fences, fingers cocked and ready for any sign of the enemy...the dreaded "krauts."
But my companion had already passed out, his breathing strong and noisy enough that I was comfortable in the knowledge that cpr was unnecessary. New quandary. Leave and call the gendarmes who would likely kick his ass on the way to a 24 hour layover? Or leave him in the hands of God or mother nature, or his tennis shoes if they happened to be his deity of choice.
I eventually determined to choose the latter, but only after a decision that would create the basis of a story 20 years later.
I scooted the "fridge" box up the rise toward the bridge surface and then dragged his carcass to an upright position, gripping his shoulders with my knees so as to keep him still while I removed my jacket.
It was a "bomber" jacket, a Navy replica leather complete with a fluffy woolen collar and heavy liner inside for those unheated trips into the stratosphere. I'd bought it as a graduation gift to myself, my pilot training completed in record time and my fresh license already 100 hours old.
Never having played with dolls as a child, it was a royal pain in the ass to dress this limp biscuit in my 400 dollar tour de force, but after a few days, or so it seemed, he was donned, zipped and ready for transfer.
I rolled him into the box, ignoring his snoring, muttered protests, and stuffed a few stray, tossed aside newspapers astride his form to keep his balance and provide a little inky down to insulate his legs from the chill.
Stoking the fire again, I sat and pondered life for a moment in my slacks and French cuffed, Egyptian cotton shirt. Though I still had visions of the butt end of a hammer attached to a railroad bum splitting my skull for my pocket change, I sat there silently and watched the flame as I'd done all my life, entranced by the wondrous, colorful magic of natural consumption; and pretty damn happy with myself.
Of course I'd never told this story. Charity is not a bragging right and selflessness is nothing once applause echoes in the wind. It was enough that I'd done it, that I'd overcome my fear and loathing long enough to practice what I'd long preached...just once. Besides, it's just as likely that the man froze to death, my jacket plucked from him by a wandering scavenger, and my culpability for his death an item I'll pay for in the great beyond.
Either way, as I sat here one night sweating blood, looking for any excuse to bury myself in fiction so as to relieve my constant, self indulgent pain for a few hours, I thought about the coat I gave away; the tiny offering from one man to another, a simple gesture of peace.
I marvel at the act, not the man. It was certainly not my doing, but those that taught me right from wrong, kindness from contempt, love from hate that are to be commended... if anyone at all.