There’s a homeless man who walks back and forth in front of my office building all day, pausing only to comb through a pair of outdoor ash trays for salvageable cigarette butts. He drapes a ratty wool blanket over his shoulders, no matter the season, and shoves tissues up both his nostrils while muttering to himself or pulling on his long (yet curiously well-groomed) beard and afro.
Frankly, he acts like a crazy person. But he usually seems content to talk to himself, without bothering anyone or making eye contact, or even asking for a fresh cigarette instead of the garbage he finds in the ash trays.
One afternoon, while I’m taking a smoke break outside the office, the homeless man runs his fingers through the ash tray’s gravel. Nothing. His hands come up empty. He looks around, and sees a town car waiting at the curb.
Then he sees me, standing against the building.
“Your car is like your woman,” he says. He nods and gestures to the car, then to the air above his head.
It takes me a moment to notice that he’s talking to me, and I realize that this is the first time I’ve actually heard him speak, after several months of watching him pace back and forth in front of me.
“If the car is yours, you take of it. You wash it, you pay for it, you clean it. If it’s not your car” — he points to the sleek town car and hired driver — “you don’t have any responsibility for it. You use it, but you don’t own it. So you don’t care. It’s like your woman.”
His shoulders bob up and down while he speaks, and his wide grin reveals (in addition to a few missing teeth) that he is proud of his insight. It might be a crude comparison, but it’s also suprisingly lucid coming from this man.
“If your woman is yours, you make a commitment to her, and you take care of her. But if the car isn’t yours, somebody else has to take care of it for you.”
He keeps talking about the similarity between car ownership and relationships. Just as I am about to smile and nod for the last time before stomping out my cigarette, he asks if he can bum a smoke.
Maybe the whole monologue has been a ruse to wrangle a cigarette from me; if it was, it works. He gives me a smile, adjusts his blanket around his shoulders, and winks at the town car before resuming his muttering and pacing in front of the building.