I hate it when panhandlers try to shake me down by offering me help with things that I can do fine by myself, so at first I said “I’m good, thanks.” (I hate that locution too, but I catch myself using it. Good at what? To whom?)
He kept standing there at the periphery of my fun-house vision. “Can I ask you something?”
I looked straight at him. “Yes?” His eyeballs were marbled like a moderately fatty slab of bacon and his skin was the velvety supple black that comes straight from Africa. His maroon shirt, neither especially old nor especially new, read FIRE AND RESCUE, with the words MOSUL, IRAQ around a sort of Maltese cross design and Arabic writing below. Something about his body language said not wrapped real tight.
“Can I have two dollars?”
It was intimately, pricklingly hot in the middle of the hectare of tarmac where I was parked. You know something, if you need two dollars enough to stand out in a frying pan like that and ask me for it — especially if you look like you have been on an epical bender — I will give it to you. I keep a few dollar bills in my key wallet. I had three today.
“Can I have all three?”
I paused a moment. “Hell, yeah. Life is a bitch.” There was a jar of pickles in my grocery bag that cost more. I squeezed his hand as I put the bills into the other. Soap is cheap.
“You see what my shirt says here? I work this job. See in Arabic? Same words. I am African, you see?” If I hadn’t seen, I’d have heard; African speakers make of the English language a music second only, I think, to the delicious lilt that is called Bombay Welsh. “I am Muslim. But I am not the extreme kind who do the bad things. I am Muslim but I try to go live in Nigeria, I am afraid they kill me so angry people. I am trying to be American me.” He put the bills in his pocket. “Can I kiss you?” I reflected that we were in the middle of a fairly busy parking lot; he was hardly a a rape artist in the shadows of a strip mall at midnight, and he was leaning to the side, not straight at me. He placed, not exactly a kiss, a buff of sorts at my temple. Oh well, soap is cheap.
“You are kind! You give me three dollars!” he called out as he sloped off across the parking lot with an uncertain gait.
I don’t care if everything was bullshit but his accent, which no one could fake. The world breaks people sometimes. I can’t do much about that standing on one foot, but I can spare a few bills. Maybe he laughed all the way to his car. I doubt it though. Anyway, I’ve spent three bucks more foolishly.
In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate.