I woke to the feeling that it was going to be a good day. And that was saying something, seeing as the smell that surrounded me was enough to speak volumes to the contrary. By now I thought I would have gotten used to that part, but sweat and urine just couldn’t be a good combination, no matter how common they’d become. At least I wasn’t sleeping next to Elroy again, since I honestly couldn’t have said when he last managed to get himself a bath.
Apparently, he was convinced the showers in the facility were the government’s way of planting micro trackers on all of us so they could eventually control us and create their own little army of mindless meat-drones. That was the one and only time I ever spoke to Elroy. He was a nice enough guy when he wasn’t in one of his psychotic episodes, but I didn’t have the patience for him more than once. Thankfully, he was perfectly content to talk to himself most of the time.
As was often the case, I was the first one awake in the room, and I had to pick my way over dozens of snoring bodies wrapped in rough blankets and using coats as pillows. There had been pillows here once, but there had been a problem with lice, so now everyone was required to provide their own or go without. Personally, I’d thought that was a smart move, especially given the sheer amount of hair in the place. It made for a sad sight, though, and I was eager to leave it behind until tonight.
I showered quickly, mostly because I kept the water cold so others could use the warm, but also because there was always the risk of getting interrupted by someone who wasn’t quite as shy as me when it came to displaying everything. I’d been joined too many times by fellow men who inevitably made comments on the way I looked as if they were judges at a body builder competition for underfed wannabes. Sure, their praise definitely helped the ego, but that didn’t mean I wanted it.
By the time I got myself dressed and headed out to the main room of the shelter, others had woken up, so the place was starting to buzz with the energy of another day. I liked this time of the morning, when everyone was fresh and rested and didn’t have the weight of the world on their shoulders yet.
“Hey, Joe,” I said as I passed an older gentleman who had been a staple at this shelter ever since I arrived. Technically, people weren’t supposed to stay longer than a few weeks, but he’d apparently been here for over a year. He was so likeable that no one wanted to tell him he had to move on.
He looked up at me with his blank white eyes and reached for my hand. “Is that Tom Thorn I hear?” he asked.
I grasped his fingers and let him pull me down onto the bench next to him. “Sure is,” I said, tempted to laugh. It may have been a few months since I started using the name, but it still didn’t feel right. I would always be Jace Hawthorne, no matter what people called me. “How are you today, Joe?”
He patted my hand first then my face. “I’m getting by,” he said with a wide smile. “You need to shave, Tom. You’re starting to look like the rest of the folk in here.”
My beard was only three months old, so nothing crazy, but apparently to a blind man it felt like I’d really let myself go. Laughing a little, I clapped my hand on his knee. “I’m trying to scare off all the ladies,” I told him. “It seems to be working.”
Clicking his tongue, Joe gave my hands a squeeze, then let go of me, which I took as a signal to move on so he could talk to everyone else passing by. “Love is worth the world,” he told me with the sagacity of a man who had been around the block a few times. I wondered how many times he’d fallen in love.
With that interesting thought, I made my way back to the sleeping area now that most people were gone to the showers or the cafeteria. I picked up blankets as I made my way to the back closet, setting them in a pile on a bench so the laundry service could get to them more easily, and then I grabbed a broom and got to work. It had been a while since I’d swept the corners of the room, so I made that my main focus until the room was completely empty and I could get to the rest of the floor.
There was something strangely soothing about sweeping, something I hadn’t known until coming to the homeless shelter. The rhythmic motions and satisfaction of seeing the pile of dust and dirt grow offered up a sense of purpose that didn’t seem to have an equal outside of other forms of cleaning.
“Do they pay you to do that?” a sharp voice asked, interrupting the stillness of my thoughts.
I glanced at the doorway, where a rag-clothed woman watched me with the eyes of someone who desperately wanted what I had, even if she didn’t know what it was. She must have been on the streets for a while to think sweeping a homeless shelter was an enviable activity. I smiled at her, though, and shook my head. “No,” I said. “I do it to be nice.”
Her hungry look immediately changed to revulsion. “You’re crazy.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” she said and glared at me before continuing on down the hall.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
By the time I finished my sweeping and got to the cafeteria, most of the shelter’s residents had already vacated, and only a few still sat scattered around the tables that filled the room. A couple of volunteers were busy bagging up the little leftover food and storing it in the rather empty refrigerators, and Mateo, the man who ran the shelter, was chatting with a woman named Destiny who had only been coming to the shelter for a couple of days.
“Tom,” Mateo greeted when he saw me, and he waved me over. “I was worried you were going to miss breakfast. You’ve met Destiny, right?”
I smiled at Destiny and gave her a nod. “I wish I could say it was good to see you again,” I said softly.
The smile she returned to me was sad, and she shrugged. At least she didn’t look quite as disheartened as she had yesterday, when she told me about losing her apartment and having to send her two kids to a foster home until she could get back on her feet.
“You’ll figure it out,” Mateo told her and put his arm around her shoulders. “I’m sure there are plenty of jobs out there if you look hard enough.”
She nodded and wrapped her arms a little tighter around herself. “I know,” she said, but her voice didn’t hold a lot of confidence. “I was doing okay for a while, but then those hospital bills started coming in, and I just couldn’t keep up.”
And while I knew it was a bad idea, especially because I had told myself to never do it, I cleared my throat and quietly said, “I hear Hawthorne Tower is often looking for housekeepers.”
Her eyes went a little wide. “That huge hotel downtown?” she asked.
“If you ask for Rohan and use Jace as a reference, he’ll probably help you get to the right people. As long as you’re willing to work hard.” I looked her over for a moment. “I think they’ll be glad to have you if you tell them you need the job for your kids.”
As Mateo smiled at me, Destiny took my hand in both of hers and looked close to breaking into sobs. “Thank you, Tom,” she whispered, her lip trembling. “The world needs more people like you.”
As soon as she was out the door, hopefully to head for the Tower, Mateo clapped me on the back and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “Hawthorne Tower?” he asked as he began leading me toward the kitchen before all the food was gone. “She’s gonna be major disappointed when they don’t even give her a look.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
He snorted a laugh and leaned on the counter separating the kitchen from the rest of the room. “Have you ever seen inside Hawthorne? It’s like Trump Tower on steroids, man. I’m pretty sure the only people who work there are worth mere millions, since the only guests who can afford the place are billionaires. Hey Marcy, got any muffins left?”
One of the volunteers looked up and shook her head, but then she saw me and turned a little red. “But there might be some oatmeal that’s still warm. Sorry, Tom, we didn’t know if you were still here.”
“And why wouldn’t I be?” I asked, also leaning on the counter.
David, another volunteer, set a bowl in front of me as Marcy went to the fridge to grab the oatmeal. “Because you’re, like, the nicest guy in the world and we can’t understand how you even ended up here in the first place. Seriously, how are you not running some big company over by Central Park?”
As soon as Marcy handed me a spoon to go with my oatmeal, I took a bite of the tasteless mush before they felt bad about not having anything better to offer me. “Maybe someday I will be,” I said with a little smile. “I don’t know, though. I can’t really see Thomas Thorn being in charge of anything important. Got any veggies?” I added because I couldn’t help myself.
Laughing again, Mateo shook his head. “You’re literally the only person in this place who hopes for something other than sugar and bread, man. Why would I have vegetables?”
“Because they’re important for a healthy diet,” I replied then laughed when Marcy held out a banana with a sheepish smile. “Thank you,” I told her and slipped the fruit into my pocket. It was something, at least.
“And I got a new book for you,” David said and held it out to me.
One glance at the title got me laughing again. “Oliver Twist? Are you trying to tell me something, David?” But I hadn’t read that one yet, so while the others laughed with me, I slipped it into my jacket pocket to replace the copy of The Time Machine he had brought me a few days ago.
“It’s a fast read, though,” he warned me, “so I also brought you this one.”
“Catch-22,” I read out loud. “I think I was supposed to read this in high school but I spent all my time doing, uh, other things.” I trailed off before I said anything that could get me into trouble, but that didn’t stop all three of them from coming to their own conclusions. By the looks of things, all of them were way off the mark. “Don’t go there,” I warned when Mateo wiggled his eyebrows at me. “I’m going to leave before you start trying to guess the kind of girls I dated as a teenager. Because you’ll be wrong.”
“Hopefully we don’t see you again!” Marcy said with a friendly wave.
I saluted them then pushed through the door and out into the October New York sun.
As I did most days, I made my rounds around the city that had been my home for my entire life. It was different down here on the street than up in the buildings like I was used to, but I was really starting to prefer it. There was something real about the ground level of New York City, where everyone were equals in a way. Everyone just trying to get where they needed to go and not worrying about the people around them and what they might think.
I started at the 9/11 Memorial and found a place to sit and eat my banana. This was one of my favorite places to watch people, because those who were waiting to go inside had no idea what was waiting for them, and those coming out were so caught up in their own emotions to bother hiding them. They were fully and completely themselves, and there was something poetic about them. People never acted like themselves in my life before I ended up on the streets, and I could honestly sit in my little spot for hours because it was so refreshing to know there were people out there who didn’t put on their best face at all times because they knew I was watching. Honestly, I was pretty sure most of the tourists passing by didn’t even see me, which brought its own form of relief.
I would sit there for hours, but the security guards at the memorial rarely let me stay more than a couple, even though they knew I never bothered anyone. Apparently, my ill-groomed appearance wasn’t good for PR. So as the morning crept closer to afternoon, I picked myself up and moved on to wander the rest of the city.
Before I started doing it, I never would have guessed how much I would enjoy walking. I used to always be going somewhere, usually in a hurry, and there had never been time to look around the city and really see what was here. All the old buildings people sped past and ignored, all the bits of street art on walls that saw only garbage and stray cats. Despite the city’s noises, I felt like I could walk in silence and have the world to myself for a bit.
And inevitably I ended up in Central Park.
The park was by far my favorite place I’d ever been, and that was saying something, since I had literally been all over the world. Central Park was home, and especially during my time on the streets, it had become a sort of haven for people like me. There were a bunch of us who ended up here during the day, and I greeted those I knew as I passed on my way to my tree.
Most of them waved back, though some of them still weren’t sure how to feel about me. They were all pretty serially homeless, whereas I had only been living like this for a few months. They likely considered me too new to really understand what it was like to live this life.
If only they knew how much of a shift this had been for me, then maybe they wouldn’t look down on me.
Reaching my tree, I settled in my spot against the trunk and took a deep breath of fresh air. One of the perks of being homeless was getting the chance to get all the fresh air I could possibly want, and aside from the lack of readily available vegetables, this little gig I had wasn’t all that bad. I could go wherever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t have anyone demanding my attention every second of every day. There was an easy rhythm to this life, one I hadn’t had until I came out here.
Taking one last deep breath, I got myself situated more comfortably then opened up Catch-22.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been sitting there when I heard the shout, though “shout” was a bit of an understatement. It was more of a scream, and it brought my heartbeat up to an uncomfortable rhythm as I looked up just in time to see a little kid running at top speed past me toward 5th Avenue. I glanced the way he’d come to see who’d shouted, but she was so far away that I was amazed I’d even heard her. There was no way she was going to catch the kid in time, and it didn’t look like he was planning on stopping anytime soon.
Dropping my book, I leapt to my feet and took off running. How had he gotten so far already? I pushed myself faster, and when I came within sight of the street, I realized there was a food cart parked right in the way. No driver would be able to see the kid before he was in the road. Maybe he would turn and stick to the sidewalk? But I ran anyway, just in case, and it only took a second to realize he was determined to get across that road and away from the woman chasing him.
“Hey!” I shouted, speeding into the street at the same time as the kid, and I shoved him as hard as I could toward the other side.
I caught a glimpse of yellow, and then it felt like my body was hit clean away from my head. I went flying, rolling several times before I came to a stop and decided I was most definitely dead. I’d seen what happened when people got hit by cars. I knew my odds weren’t good. Not when it hurt this much.
Unable to move or breathe or really think, I lay there and stared up at the blinding sunlight, waiting for everything to disappear. A shadow passed over me, and I saw the face of an angel looking down at me with tears in her eyes. She touched my face with a warm hand, and the world went dark.