For all intents and purpose, Ronnie had been a bum his entire life. He was a man without the shyest of wants or needs. A man that could go for days without food or a clean crap and still thank those unfeeling city-dwellers that snarled at his proposition for unwarranted help. He was a happy guy, Ronald was; despite cutting off his nose to save his face. He knew a level of freedom no one can understand lest they’ve ever looked at the homeless with a scrap of envy. That freedom though, wasn’t what made for his happy demeanor; it was something far simpler.
The trick to living homeless, he told me once, was to find any passing joy and hang on to it with every thread of dignity one can muster. His certification of life came from the ease in which he derived pleasure from eating only semi-moldy garbage. If the lettuce hadn’t gone entirely tawny, Ronnie would become the happiest of campers. And that’s how he got through his days. That’s how he could so easily refuse the amenities that make up a life as a part of society. As a result, Ronnie was able to make up his own society, full with standards and borders, a world dictated by only a few but steadfast rules. One such rule - the most important rule - was force your glee at every turn.
It’s not to say this was always easy for good Ronnie. A bum is still a bum, regardless of proposed demeanor; and most generally, a bum is pretty corrupt with revulsion by nature. Still, Ronnie found his grace when he looked for it. Those that he considered friendly were the ones to point out his shoes were what made his search for temporary satiation plausible. He’d had them for ten years and there was barely a scratch on them. The train yard bums called them magic and respected Ronnie for wearing them. Those more cynical homeless believed he’d been trading them up for months. The black leather was as deep and robust as the day he first held them in his hands.
A man with white hair and brown skin stopped in front of the then newly dispossessed Ronnie and asked if he had the skill enough to shine a pair of shoes. Ronnie nodded without a word. The brown man looked down at Ronnie, who at the time was wearing bundles of newspapers for footwear and asked if he needed them. Ronnie denied the offer, claiming since his fall, he needed nothing. The brown man smiled and left his shoes in the hands of the given up. Maybe there was magic in them, perhaps it was a karmic redistribution, but those shoes to Ronnie made his search for any chance of truth in life worth continuing.
It was when those shoes were stolen from his feet that Ronnie’s search for dispensation took on a different ideal entirely. A group of those more unsavory homeless types had banded together for the sole purpose of removing Ronnie’s grace. And after they were taken, he slowly collapsed into the man he was before his fall; he became needy, desperate for the absolution that had come so easily with the knowledge of an overall unimportance. Without the ace in his shoes, unimportance turned into anguish and his positive world view had steadily crumbled. He was left with the truth of his part in a meaningless society.
So he wandered. Shoeless and adrift, he pursued what could not be captured any longer. His heart was enamored with what was passing, yet he realized what passed by was something he could never truly possess. As each chance for renewal escaped his grasp he’d become more and more aware of his own lack of having. He was made aware of what a bum he’d become.
Ronnie lived on, somehow. On Fridays he’d beg for Fifty cents to empty the Inquirer’s Twenty-Second Street point. If a good movie was opening that weekend, Ronnie could earn quarters enough for a real meal; as real as Wendy’s or McDonald’s, anyway. But he hadn’t in weeks. He wouldn’t sell the papers lifted from the corner anymore; just wrap them around his feet, swollen from the chilly air. He didn’t think much about the fact he was stealing them from their distributor, or that he could have used the Citypaper for free. He took what he did for his wants and regarded nothing else with importance. Change within him had occurred; now there were unbreakable standards to which he had no chance of avoiding. Before, Ronnie knew purposelessness, now he was a waste. Even as a bum, Ronnie was faced with those exchangeable alternatives that crush a man’s spirit, and cause for starvation’s reminder.
He hadn’t eaten in a week and by then, a week was a month. All that came to pass as truth for Ronnie was that the hungrier he got, the less likely it became that he would eat. Falling deeper and deeper into his hunger was all he could do, besides decay. He’d try sometimes to read the news on his feet, but he’d almost forgotten how, or was just too hungry to do so. He thought of his hunger. It was consuming him, bit by bit. He began thinking about how to rob the man walking down the street wearing glasses and a Nancy scarf in March. There was no strength left in Ronnie to pull him into an alleyway; or even to swing a lead pipe. Maybe he could manage the ten-year old girl walking home from Grade school. Then again, he doubted if she had anything on her to begin with.
If you’re hungry enough, you’ll do just about anything to eat. You find the push to get up for food. Without energy, Ronnie gathered his final ounces of strength to sell one last stack of papers before what otherwise would surely have been death. He would settle for anything, a bag of peanuts, a hot dog, something to chew and swallow. He trekked the ten blocks to Twenty-Second where he often made his pickup, fingering the two quarters in his pocket. Pushing himself to the point, he thought, was just the beginning. It would be a while still of carrying the papers before any profit could be turned, and that ache made him walk faster.
As he approached the corner he saw a woman with dark sunglasses holding a long stick. At first her look was lost, but it became clear she was waiting for something. She blocked Ronnie’s access to the papers.
“Would you buy a paper?” He asked, swallowing his words as he spoke them.
“How did you know?” The woman asked. “I need change for my dollar.” She rubbed her cane against his paper shoes. “Could you help me?” She pointed her head upward toward the sky, focused in her darkness. “Please,” she said and held out a Ten dollar bill.
Ronnie took into account her helpless and trusting place. His stomach made him take a paper from the machine and hand it to the woman.
“Keep the fifty cents,” she said. “A paper’s worth a dollar any day.”
Ronnie looked at her a moment, and looked at the Ten she was holding out, mistaken for a single.
“Are you blind, Ma’am?”
“No, I carry this stick for fashion; it’s the latest trend from Italy. Take a guess, smart guy.”
And carrying the paper under her arm, she walked away. Ronnie looked at the ten dollar bill he had just taken and was able to think of only one thing.
For a man with newspaper footwear to walk into the Arch St. McDonald’s is not entirely uncommon; the place had seen its fair share of scum in front and behind the registers. Ronnie though, was one of the few to walk in with money in his pocket, albeit appropriated money. He strode to the counter with the truth of life within his reach. Here he remembered what it was like to be content with what was occurring. No longer minding the sores around his feet, the ache in his belly, the hardship on his mind, he ordered food like a man with an honest intent and responsible plea. He asked for two Double Quarter Pounder meals. He was given a pound of beef next to three potato’s fries and a gallon of Coke, not the healthiest way to break a fast.
He inhaled the meal. Tasting nothing but the long-awaited sustenance, he smiled at others in the restaurant as he ate. People avoided his looks. They glanced over at the bundles he would walk on, but made sure the bum could not ruin their meal. It didn’t bother Ronnie. His anger had receded and he was left to enjoy how the day was turning out. He recalled the blind woman, and the off-chance timing of catching a free ten dollar bill. Maybe it was greed, he thought, maybe one should feel bad. But he didn’t. He didn’t feel anything except for the meat, sliding down his throat, half-chewed and overcooked.
When done, he sat on the hard plastic of an upstairs dining room chair at McDonalds, shifting for a more comfortable position. He told himself he wasn’t going anywhere, not until that food had been digested, but there were troubles. Remembering back to the night when his shoes were stolen, he began to tremble with anxiety. Those faces that belonged to the arms holding him down, the smiling mouths of remorseless thieves, it stuck out it in his head like never before. Unable to shake their malice he began to tremble, grappling with the shooting pains bursting in his belly. Something was coming, and Ronnie knew not how to deal with it. All his life it was his lot to abstain from finding an answer to a problem. Never needing a solution was his key to avoiding any hindrance. But now, his stomach insisted on showing him solutions are inevitable. It showed him what it’s like to be folded on top of itself so many times its density could pop. And pop Ronnie did, all over the floor of the upstairs dining room at the McDonald’s on Arch. He tried popping in the bag his food came in, but failed after focusing on the chunks. He could see the onion and the mustard, the pickle and the ketchup, it kept coming and coming; not barely a quarter digested. He lurched as little as possible but landed face up on the floor dry heaving out of the side of his mouth what was left to be expelled. His knotty hair smeared the reddish remains of a stolen meal into the linoleum floor as he cried out loud, begging for something he never wanted in the first place. Finally, he had adapted the thief’s mindset and aided in the proof of that single societal truth; nobody’s different at zero.