"Okay." He seems prematurely middle-aged, most likely from hard labor; there's a layer of dust on his hands and clothes, casting his being in a uniform sandy color. Stubble and wireframe glasses catch the evening light.
"Time to go home?"
"I wish. Comin' from. Just finished work, hadta come out here."
We're at 198th, nearly 200 blocks north of the city. "That's a drag, comin' all this way up from town."
"Yeah, I do roofing."
"Now I'm goin' to my girlfriend's house."
He sounds depressed about it. Even the working class have champaigne problems. Must be human nature. I say, "Oh, that's not so bad!"
"Yeah, she wanted me to come out."
"Well, a ladyfriend is a good thing to have."
He acknowledges me with present silence, and adds, "her brother just died last week."
"He was drinking, I mean he was a drunk. He fell in the bathtub and cracked his face open."
"Shoot," I said, processing. "Oh." Worlds can exist in that one syllable. Images and memories fly through my head as I say, "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"When was this?"
"Two days ago. So she asked me to come up here, her mom's up here..."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Well, something was gonna happen, eventually. The way he carried on."
"Yeah, tha' type a lifestyle,"
"Always something, hurting himself, hurting the people around him, drivin' all us crazy... I don't go there anymore. I'm sober now. Seven years. Drove my car straight into a ditch, that was it for me."
"That's a good little warning sign."
Finally, there it is- a rich, wide, real smile on his sandy face. Malcolm Gladwell wrote that fake smiles and real smiles use nearly all the same muscles, but we can intuit the subtle difference so easily. Here he is now, the twenty-first century working man, raised up by one of his fellows, still grinning as he walks away. I sit in traffic and watch him stride quickly into the distance ahead. There's an undeniable bounce in his step, entirely at odds with the dilapidated landscape around him. He's walking into the American sunset, buoyant, learning it all into a new perspective. Never too late to begin again.