I was walking home from the pharmacy along the underside of the train tracks, battling my crappy umbrella in the semi-storm while also smoking, when a man stopped me. As I took out one earphone, I heard him saying, “please, miss, I have five dollars, I’m only forty cents shorts for a pack of cigarettes.
I stood still and looked at him.
“You know a place that has a pack of cigarettes for $5.40?”
“A half pack,” he said, his hood sliding back a bit.
“Where can you get a half pack?”
“Of loosies. 50 cents each, so.”
I had a thoughtful glance at the middle distance while feeling in my pockets for change with my free hand. “Yeah, that’s not bad. I don’t like menthols, though.” As my pockets came up empty, I halfway un-shouldered my backpack and grabbed at the bottom of the change/tampons/unpleasant-scraps-of-things zone.
“Me either, but I can’t afford the 12 dollars. I wish they’d split up a pack of Marlboro’s,” he said, looking encouraged.
I pulled out a small but healthy-feeling handful of coins, looked down to confirm a couple of quarters among the pennies, and started trying to fish a bit of soft, soiled paper out of the mix with my thumb.
“But you know the bodega over there has packs for $7.50? Camels, everything.”
“Yeah?” We looked at each other — a quiet, purpose-filled fraternity between us — while he quickly thought over my proposition of a longer-term investment. He dipped his hand into his own pocket, opening his fingers to reveal several nickels and dimes, maybe a quarter or two.
“I have… close to six.”
Our eyes turned to my handful.
“I have… this much.” I slid the contents neatly into his other hand, which still had a crumpled five pinned to it by his thumb. I knew my contribution was definitely closer to a dollar than not.
Our eyes moved back to his hands for a moment, then met.
He paused, our stares causing a humble speck of combined ambition, faith, and determination to crystalize in the wet air between us. The reflections of street lamps trembling in pools of rainwater, the aggressively hissing cars, the careening buses stopped, for a quick moment, and waited while he calculated.
He licked his lips.
“I can make that.”
“Yeah?” I said, the supportive, sympathetic hopefulness in my voice almost — but not quite — necessitating an exclamation point.
“Yeah.” He nodded, finding the middle distance with his eyes (a lower m.d. than mine), and stood a bit taller, readied. “I can make that.”
We waited quietly for one last second.
“Cool. Good luck, man.”
He nodded. “Thank you, babe.”
Off we went in our own directions again.