The streets were moist. Remnants of the storm hovered over the morning making it dark and gloomy. Heels and loafers smothered the sidewalks. A sea of forlorn expressions. Briefcases sliced through the bitter air. And horns cried out in protest to the end of the weekend.
Behind Joe’s on 53rd, Arthur sat, knees pulled to his chest. Ten wrinkled toes greeted the morning air, peeking out from the end of his dirtied and tattered cream Converse sneakers. He knew it was silly to keep them. They hardly provided any protection and certainly no longer kept him dry. But they hugged him close like two old friends. Made him feel not so alone.
“Arthur!” Frank bellowed out from the back door of the diner.
The elderly man cringed, his rickety old body attempting to move for the first time this cold and damp November morning.
“Coming,” he grumbled beneath putrid breath.
Arthur’s left leg dragged as he walked. His limp, a permanent reminder of the war that had claimed his youth and in many ways his life.
Joe’s was a dilapidated little old brick building. One of those places nobody could ever remember being new. One of those places that looked like you might catch an incurable disease if you ate there. And yet you just had to eat there because the state of disrepair was charming and the risk a little exciting.
Frank stood at the rotten door jamb and Arthur couldn’t tell if the building was holding Frank up or if Frank was holding the building up.
“Come on ya old bastard. I ain’t got all day.” Frank winked and extended both arms.
Arthur flashed him his nearly toothless smile and took the rolled up paper bag and large coffee container.
“Don’t tell no one. Our lil secret. Frankie don’t need no trouble from the boss.”
The frail man nodded, unscrewed the cap to the coffee container, and took a drink. He smacked his cracked lips together after savoring the sip, before replacing the cap so the bitter nectar inside would stay piping hot.
“Mmmmmmm. So good it almost tricked me into thinking this here life of mine wasn’t so bad.”
Arthur pivoted and began to head toward the busy street, but paused and turned back. “Thanks,” he called out to Frank, but the short and stocky Italian had already disappeared back into the building.
It was a typical Monday morning and it was business as usual even for Arthur. He may not have had a family or a home or a job anymore, but it didn’t mean he didn’t have things to do. The military had taught him a great many things, like keeping to a schedule and staying organized and clean (although the whole shoe-shining bit had never quite stuck).
He looked left, then right, then left again. And in the not-so-tiny span of time it took him to hobble off the curb and begin his slow progression toward the opposite side of the street, a yellow monster was barreling toward him.
“Woah! Woah!” Arthur threw his right arm up into the air, the arm which gripped the rolled up paper bag, as a certain impatient cab driver nearly plowed him over.
The man inside the yellow monster went by the name of Aman, and he nearly murdered poor old Arthur at least a few times a week. Aman was Indian and sported a bright red turban. His brown head bobbled from side to side and he laughed before mouthing “I’m sorry” and shrugging his narrow shoulders.
At the corner of 54th and Main was another dilapidated old building. This one wasn’t a diner, but a building which once was a warehouse many, many, many years ago, and today was a home for the young and abandoned. The Main Street Orphanage. This was his first stop.
“Good morning, Artie!” A peppy redhead, ironically named Annie, pushed open the front door so Arthur could come inside.
Annie was young, although everyone was young in comparison to Arthur. She was a very pretty girl, but she hid her prettiness under dull liberianesque attire. She was the kind of pretty Arthur would have gone for if he was 50 years younger. The kind of pretty that reminded him of his late wife.
“Hello, sweet pea,” Arthur said.
He stopped briefly as he passed Annie, leaned down, closed his eyes and ever-so-gently kissed her on the cheek. And for the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to be transported back to a time when his life was filled with optimistic uncertainty and limitless dreams.
“You’re the sweetest!” Annie stood on her tiptoes and threw her arms around Arthur and kissed him back. Probably like she kissed her grandfather. “They are all waiting for you!”
Annie and Arthur made their way into the large eating hall at the back of the first level of the orphanage. Sitting on the linoleum floor were this week’s guests. Each week ten of the children would be randomly selected to join Arthur for coffee, muffins, and a story. The eating hall would have certainly housed all of the children who lived there, but Arthur didn’t do well with big crowds. He also knew there was no way Frank could get away with giving him a few hundred muffins each week. Ten was a much more reasonable (and undetectable) amount. Plus, this gave the children something to look forward to and hope for each week.
The children all stood when he entered the room. And some hopped from one foot to another in eager anticipation. And each week his heart melted. He felt bad for them. Being so excited. About plain old Arthur.
Annie passed out plates and cups, and shook her head as Arthur began to make his way around the circle of children, passing out muffins and pouring coffee.
Arthur could feel her beady little eyes gnawing a hole in his backside. He didn’t even turn to address her. Simply said, “They don’t have no families, no nice homes, and the little bastards have to listen to my crotchety ass for an hour. Let ‘em have some damn coffee.”
He turned to find Annie smiling. He smiled back.
Over the next hour he told a story to the children. Each week the story was different. And he wasn’t quite sure if what he shared was in fact all true. In actuality, he was pretty sure a large portion of what dribbled out of his aged mouth was made up. He was old. He was just impressed he was able to sit for that long of a time without soiling his pants or falling asleep. And it must not have been that bad because ten sets of eyes remained glued to his the entire time. They laughed and smiled and always had an infinite amount of questions for him after. He loved each of them so very much.
As a token of gratitude, the orphanage would allow Arthur to shower there and to clean his clothes. And as a kindness to the society which surrounded Arthur, he took the orphanage up on their offer.
After he was clean, Annie greeted him once again at the front doors. She held a coffee cup in one hand.
“It’s just warm broth. It’s not much, but…” she shrugged and handed it to him.
“It’s perfect. Thank you.”
Arthur kissed her on top of her head and left.
It was now early afternoon and the sun’s warm rays stretched out from behind the last of the clouds. Arthur walked into the Main Street Bank which was four blocks down from the orphanage. A petite African American woman sat at a desk in the front of the branch.
“There he is!” The woman hopped up from her desk and sauntered over to him.
Arthur smiled at Sheila and then hugged her, taking a deep breath and nearly getting drunk on her perfume.
Sheila’s mother, Barbara, had worked at the bank for 30 years before passing suddenly in the night a few years back. Sheila was a motivated and independent young woman. She went to school at night and worked two jobs during the day. Arthur respected her very much.
“Well,” Sheila said, grabbing a hold of Arthur’s hand and gingerly pulling him toward her desk, “business as usual?”
He nodded in agreement. Arthur was good at telling stories, but he wasn’t the best at conversing. He was both a man of many words and a man of few. A walking contradiction.
Sheila sighed. Each month she hoped Arthur would change his ways. Save and except beating his head upside a wall, she had tried everything she could to persuade Arthur to save up for a small downtown apartment, even going so far as to offer to pay the down payment for him. But he wouldn’t have it. He had argued back that there just wasn’t enough. That having a home would only stress him out more because then he would have to worry about everything that came with having a home – gas, electricity, repairs, etc. He was happier taking his money and doing what he could with it. After all, war had made him tough. Sleeping outside wasn’t so bad. And on the particularly bad nights he could always find a shelter to go to, although he avoided them like the plague. Other than his late wife, Arthur had always preferred the company of nature over that of most other human beings.
“Very well.” Sheila left her desk and walked over to the teller area.
While he waited, Arthur sipped his broth and watched various patrons in the lobby. Then he noticed a picture frame on Sheila’s desk. It was a picture of a young boy. He’d never seen it before. The boy appeared to be four or five years old. Wore thick glasses and a royal blue polo shirt.
“Ralph,” Sheila said, returning with a stack of bills and a pile of envelopes.
“His name is Ralph. That’s my son.”
“Oh,” Arthur said, unsure of how else to respond, thinking it was odd in all their conversations over the years she’d never brought him up.
“It’s complicated. It’s why I work so much. Why I am going to school. To get him back. He’s with his father. I get to see him on the weekends now.”
Sheila spoke the words rapidly and didn’t make eye contact with him. Like she was ashamed. And he thought that odd, an educated woman with a job and a home ashamed to speak to a homeless man.
“I see.” Again, he didn’t know what to say. “He’s cute. Like you.”
“Thanks,” she said, shuffling the piles around, shoving a few bills into each of the envelopes. “I think you’re all set. Sure I can’t…oh, never mind.”
He smiled a silent thank you at her and took the envelopes from her hands, her soft flesh brushing up against the harsh leather that was his own.
Before he was able to say goodbye to her, Sheila was called over to another desk to handle a disgruntled customer. He stood for a moment watching her patiently coax the overly dramatic woman down. Then he grabbed a pen from Sheila’s desk. And in the best writing he could, he wrote “4 Ralf” on the outside of one of the envelopes, left it on her chair, and walked out of the bank.
Arthur made his way back to the park at the very end of Main Street. The park was lined with trees that, if afforded the opportunity to talk, could have out-storied Arthur any day. It was dusk and the street lamps were confused and flickered on and off and then on and off again. He meandered down the winding path. And each time he passed a young homeless person sleeping on a bench, he would stop and tuck an envelope into their jacket. He continued walking and sharing until there was no light and there was only one envelope left. That envelope was his. That was what he would use to help to feed himself until his next check came through.
His leg was tired from a full day of walking, so he took the next empty bench that he saw and sat down. Watched the night swallow the last of the day. He leaned back into the seat, let his head hang back, and he smiled as he got lost in a deep and comfortable and peaceful sleep.
“Arthur!” Frank bellowed out from the back door of the diner the next morning.
There was no response. Frank waited about ten minutes before he shouted again. But his call was returned with nothing but the song of sirens off in the distance.
Frank walked over to the box behind the dumpster and found it to be empty.
The streets weren’t moist, but there were remnants of a storm which hovered over the morning making it dark and gloomy. Heels and loafers smothered the sidewalks. A sea of forlorn expressions. Briefcases sat ignored in living rooms across town, and the horns were silent, but there were cries that could be heard.
It wasn’t a typical Monday. And everyone on Main Street wasn’t sure if there ever would be such a thing ever again.
Arthur Jefferson had passed peacefully in the night the week before. He’d been found on a bench with a smile on his face.
His absence was palpable to everyone he had met and even those he had not. He’d been that one smile in the sea of forlorn expressions. He had been the hope of a building full of forgotten souls. He’d been the only friend to a lonely man named Frank. And he’d been the possibility to an infinite number of troubled youths who awoke each morning to find an anonymous gift in their coat pocket.
Plain old Arthur had indeed been old but anything but plain. All the businesses on Main Street had closed and the entire City attended his funeral, which had been paid for by donations. They had all arrived in white envelopes.
And a funny thing happened. A wave of happiness washed away the sea of forlorn expressions as strangers came together and shared Arthur stories.
A monument in the Main Street Park was erected in his honor – a pair of old worn converse sneakers. A reminder of how simple acts of kindness could change a city…and maybe even the world.