The high-pressure sodium-vapor lamps of yore have a way of collapsing the color spectrum just so; the deep shade of his skin made less of an impression, and I couldn't discern what color his open denim jacket was, nor his sagging jeans, layered undergarments and assorted street jewelry, contrasty basketball shoes which could as easily be blue as red. Tonight he was just a forty-something figure cloaked in monochromatic orange. I called out to him.
"Hey, there he is!"
"Hey, iss muh boy!"
"This damn cigarette." He didn't need the bus, but wanted the camaraderie. He leaned in for a handshake– no fistpound tonight, just the classic "gentleman's agreement" approach. In his other hand was an unlit cigarette.
"Say my Daddy cracked," he said, raspy voice rising. "Said he over."
What did he mean? He sounded unhappy about it, and if it was an accusation I wanted him to know I'd said no such thing.
"Who said that?"
"Cancer, man. Cigarette smoke."
"Aaaoouuh," I said. "I'm so sorry. I am so sorry."
Sometimes tears come very quickly.
"Cancer," he said again. His eyes crinkled over, his lips tore downward. His body pitched forward in helpless rage and love, frustration convulsing in the face of a silent abyss. He saw his father then, and he saw the size of death, the savage indifference of unearned punishment come too soon. I didn't know what to say. I stammered in sympathy.
He screamed. He screamed his pain with primal force, wordless, body scrunched up with effort, a vowel of catastrophe roared so mightily I thought he would break glass.
People looked up. They turned around. A just-deboarded friend of mine was on the sidewalk. She paused, perhaps fearing the worst. A companionable freeloader skulked up to me on the pretext of checking the time, but more likely to ensure my safety.
There was no cause for fear. Our man was just in lamentation, struck low on an elemental level.
"I'll see you fuckin' later!!" He yelled between gritted teeth, caught between cosmic frustration and the decorum of acquaintanceship. Still the tears, bending his face toward a delicate ugly, painfully beautiful in its truthfulness.
We grow, but do we ever really change? In moments of uncomplicated joy and extreme sorrow, you sense the boy in every grown man, no matter how dense an alpha-dog outfit they muster. I saw him as outside of time, nevermind all the tough swagger and accoutrements; there's a hurting child in there, confused from day one as we all are, as to why there can be no life without suffering. His sadness came from a place before intellect, before adolescence. Beneath all the attainment and attunement of age...
Deep down, always, the child is the father of the man.
I don't have the answers, but I let him speak. I hugged him with my eyes, and we shook hands again, nothing fancy tonight. Just the connected human touch.