Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.
~ Sigmund Freud
I wonder how long it will take before someone asks me for a cigarette.
I come to the library quite a bit and it never fails that someone moseying around the front entrance trolling for smokes to bum asks me for one. This time, it takes almost an entire cigarette. I’m not a fast smoker. I choose to think while I’m smoking, especially at the library, and I often forget I have one dangling between my fingertips. So it takes longer than usual for someone to ask.
This time it is a black woman with hair extensions spiraling down over the back of her jacket collar. The sheen from the Geri Curl is blinding, reflecting the afternoon sun. She asks me and I hesitate, just so she knows how irritating I find this whole ritual. “Sure,” I finally say as she begins digging in her purse. I assume she’s fishing for a light, but after about thirty seconds of her digging and me holding the cigarette out for her to take, she snaps it shut, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “I thought I had some change.” I tell her not to worry about it, but she wants me to wait while she goes to her car and gets me change.
I saw her walk here from down the street.
I tell her, “No, really. Do you need a light?” Yes, she needs a light as well, so I hook her up with both a cigarette and a light. And she tries to make small talk while she’s standing there staring at the traffic going by. “How are you today?” she asks. I tell her I’m just peachy and think how I sound like I don’t mean it at all but she doesn’t get that and says, “That’s wonderful!” And then she says she’ll see me later and steps into the crosswalk and heads back the way she came from.
And I notice she’s wearing slippers.
I decide I’m hungry, so I walk across the street to King Gyros. See the same booth where I once spent the wee hours talking with a friend, only it is occupied by a couple of teenage girls dressed in black hoodies, the one facing me with a white skull sequined on the front. They are both wearing earbuds, lost I imagine in something by Green Day or Theory of a Deadman. If that’s who teenage girls listen to these days.
They aren’t talking.
I place my order and while I’m signing the little debit card printout that gets all rolled up so you have to straighten it out and bend it lengthwise in the middle to keep it from rolling away, the cashier asks the guy behind me what he wants. He mumbles something about rib tips, so low that I wondered if I heard him correctly. The cashier must be used to mumblers, or used to hearing certain things ordered enough times in one day that he just automatically knows what the mumblers mean, and I wonder why people mumble like that. Why not just speak up and tell the world what you want. He’s Hispanic and his clothes are dusty and his hands dirty. Probably a worker from the construction site a couple blocks south.
And he gets his rib tips before I get my gyro, which makes no sense.
Nor does the guy I meet on my way back to the library. He’s white, maybe fifty, and he needs a dollar to help pad his gas fund so he can drive and meet his son who lives north of town about ten miles. “A dollar?” I ask. I’m not used to such a specific request from the downtrodden that mingle these streets around the library. I dig in my pocket and pull out the loose change. Eighty-five cents. I hand it to him and tell him I hope it helps, because that’s all I got. He doesn’t ask me for a sandwich, even though I’m standing there holding the bag from King Gyros and it smells really good.
But he does ask me for a cigarette. I think of asking for one of my quarters back, but I don’t and give him a cigarette and then miss the little white hand on the post telling me it’s safe to cross because I’m busy watching the man mosey down the sidewalk, off to put some gas in his car and go meet his son, who must be a son of a bitch I figure for leaving his old man stranded like that.