A bright red coat and a rusty metal cart


We met in my neighbor’s driveway.

We had our reasons for being there. He was standing where the grass would have blurred the lines between dirt and gravel had it been June rather than December. As it was, he was simply surrounded by a blanket of white that erased all the usual boundaries. He was rummaging through my neighbor’s recycling bin, searching for anything that might earn him a nickel. I was sitting in my car, cranking up the heat and waiting for the other half of my carpool. 

My youngest son was the first half, sleepy-eyed and buckled into the front passenger seat beside me. My neighbor’s son was the other half, and any minute he would burst through the front door and charge toward my backseat like he did every other morning. As I waited, I licked my finger and reached over to remove a smudge of chocolate chip waffle from my son’s upper lip.

Most mornings I was running in a hundred different directions, coffee sloshing around in my insulated travel mug. I would spot him at various locations near my house, his rusty metal cart always by his side. His cart was piled high with black garbage bags filled to bursting with soda cans and beer cans and maybe an occasional glass bottle. The man and his cart were part of my morning routine.

Whenever I saw him, I would feel a pang of sympathy mixed with just enough lack of understanding to make me quickly turn away. Seeing him made me feel ashamed to be sitting in a warm car with a mug of hot coffee, my belly full of bacon and chocolate chip waffles.

I had often thought about stopping to offer him some money, but the timing was never quite right. I was always in a hurry, he was always turned away, there was never any place to pull over, and another day always seemed better. But that day he was right there in front of me, and I new a moment like that would never come again.

I don’t usually carry cash, but that day I had my sons’ allowance waiting to be distributed when their chores were completed. Like the tell-tale heart, I could almost hear it lying in the inner compartment of my wallet. My mind was spinning with so many questions, I didn’t realize my fingers were curled around the steering wheel in a way that would leave them feeling stiff for hours.

I remember my hair was still damp from my shower, but I was hoping it would be dry by the time I got to work. I wasn’t wearing any makeup because I was planning to apply some lipstick in the elevator on my way up to the sixth floor of my building. It was one of those mornings where time had gotten away from me, and every second counted. I was wearing my bright red coat and heels that were totally inappropriate for the weather. I didn’t care because I knew I could go straight from the parking garage to my office without having to trudge through the snow covering all the sidewalks.

The man struggled to add a few more cans to one of the bags piled on top of his rusty metal cart.

I told myself it was silly. I was a mess. I was running late. Another day would be better.

Then he bent over to dig for more cans, and I sprang into action as if a switch had been flipped somewhere in my central nervous system. I tore off my gloves and fumbled around for the money buried in the depths of my purse that was so full of so many unnecessary things.

I opened my door, clutching the two $10 bills that were meant for my sons’ allowance.

“Sir?” I managed to say clearly, in spite of my reservations. 

He glanced up from his cart, his eyes rounded with surprise.

I held the bills toward him like a peace offering to make up for jumping out of my car and startling him. I wondered what he was wondering about me, wearing a bright red coat and impractical shoes, rushing up to him through piles of snow in a driveway that belonged to somebody else.

He motioned to his cart and mumbled something about not having a free hand. He seemed prepared to dismiss me and move on.

I felt deflated, like a balloon released to jettison around the room until it finally sputtered to the ground. All of this effort, and he was just going to walk away.

I panicked.

My heart racing, I abruptly reached over and placed the money in his gloved hand. “Merry Christmas!” I blurted. I hope I managed to smile above the furious pounding of my heart, but I really don’t remember.

He might have responded by wishing me a Merry Christmas as I jumped in my car, but the rushing in my ears muffled his words.

My neighbor’s son had buckled himself into my backseat by this point, and I drove off without a backward glance. I still wasn’t convinced I had done the right thing.

After I dropped the boys off, I turned my car back around in the opposite direction of the school. I had to take a detour because there were several police cars blocking the streets near my house, and traffic was being routed up and around the entire area. There was no doubt I would be late, and I was annoyed. I said a little prayer for those involved in the accident, but I wished they had been paying more attention.

It wasn’t until I arrived at work that I would hear how the man had continued to maneuver his cart through the snow to the corner a couple of houses down from my neighbor’s driveway. Just minutes after I placed my sons’ allowance in his hand, he had stepped out into the busy street with his rusty metal cart piled high. 

The accident that made me late is the accident that took his life.

I would later learn that he was a man with a successful past and a son of his own. When he hit hard times and became homeless, he spent his days turning down every single offer of help and giving different names to everyone who tried to get to know him better. He was a flesh-and-blood man whose garbage bags full of cans had never reached the recycling center down the street.

So why did he accept two $10 bills from a woman in a bright red coat and impractical shoes with a chocolate-stained son sitting in her front seat?

I’ll never know for sure.

What I do know is that we met in my neighbor’s driveway for the barest heartbeat of a moment.

And it was enough.

 
 








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