Hunger

Tony woke up on a cool early-Autumn morning in a wooded area in one of the city’s larger parks. He sat up on the park bench, set his jacket next to him, and breathed in the refreshing September air. The nights were getting cooler, but the afternoons weren’t so oppressively hot anymore, and Tony preferred being cold to being too hot. You can always put more clothes on, he reasoned, but there are only so many you can take off before you’re naked. During the cold weather, people who had no place of their own could seek shelter during the day in public libraries, or cafes if they had money for a bottomless cup of coffee, and for the cold nights they could find additional clothing or blankets, usually dispensed eagerly by charitable organizations. Tony had learned that he could insulate himself against the elements by placing wadded newspaper between layers of clothing. On the coldest days of this last winter, his first without a place of residence, he’d looked much larger than he actually was. He was a short and stocky Polish man, but not fat by any means, and he had bundled up more than most homeless guys because the reality of the cold took him a bit by surprise. It wasn’t quite time yet to get bundled up like that again; even on the chillier nights, Tony was comfortable with a light jacket as a sort of blanket. And after enduring the last winter’s cold, it would have to get pretty cold again before he would even begin to feel it.

The sun had already probably been up for at least an hour when Tony woke, and he took note of the perfect temperature. Not much later in the day, it could easily be too hot again, and day by day it would grow colder each time he woke. He shook it off the thought and stretched his arms in the warmth of the sun, but stopped short when he felt a pain in his gut. He recoiled and held his hand to where the pain had been, regretting that he hadn’t tried harder to find something more to eat the night before. The struggle to eat well was consistently the most difficult part of this life for Tony. Sure, it took him a while to get used to his natural scent, but that hardly bothered him anymore. Not being able to eat whenever and whatever he wanted was a different story. Without a job or the willingness to panhandle, finding something to eat could be a real obstacle at times. He typically ate one meal a day, in the evenings, after spending the day collecting cans and various metal scraps that could be sold to the recycling guys whose shop was near the landfill on the southeast side of town. He hadn’t been able to find much that he could sell the day before, so when it came time to cash in and find something to eat, his options were very limited. He thought back on the can of soup longingly, wishing he would’ve been able to afford two. Or maybe that he would’ve eaten it later in the evening, so that he wouldn’t feel so hungry now.

He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes as the hunger pangs subsided and took in the beauty of the woods around him, already busy with the day’s work of living. The walk path and the occasional park bench along the side of it were the only reminders of the civilized world beyond the small stretch of peaceful woods. He sighed as he thought about the fact that he’d have to get up soon and go back into the fray. He pulled out his pouch of tobacco. The morning cigarette would be so much better if he had some coffee with it, but sometimes it could be such a hassle. He had enough change for a cup of coffee; it was only a matter of whether or not he wanted to make the walk to get it. He put the tobacco back into his pocket, deciding that the cigarette would be much more enjoyable if accompanied by a cup of coffee. Together, they provided the incentive to get moving and get the day started.

He wondered, as he made his way down the walking path out of the woods, who would be working at the gas station this morning. The clerks there did appreciate one thing in particular about Tony—he didn’t use their place of business as a place to panhandle. It was inevitable that panhandlers would hassle customers for spare change in the parking lot from time to time, and the attendants had very little patience for it. Tony could recognize the look from clerks who didn’t know him; he could see how they waited for him to misstep so they could tell him to hit the road. But he never asked for anything from anyone. He hated the idea of making people uncomfortable, and he didn’t like drawing attention to himself. He tried to interact with only as many people as he absolutely needed to, which amounted to essentially the employees at the gas station and the recyclers at the junkyard who bought his scraps each day. If he could get through his day to day life without irritating any of those few people, he considered himself successful.

The pan-handlers are high-rollers on the street, a little bit of change here and there really adds up over the course of a day. Some of the panhandlers need to make a lot of money to support their drug or alcohol habits, but others have places to live and no real excuses for not working straight jobs, except for laziness or difficulties with authority. Tony didn’t look down on them for not wanting to work, but it disgusted him that they take the best of both worlds: living on the streets by day and sleeping in homes at night. Tony once had a home, and he couldn’t imagine trying to live the two different lives at the same time. He was living in an entirely different world now, and saw about as much use in thinking about his old life as he saw in imagining living on the moon. People who lived in any sort of a home didn’t live in the same world as Tony, even if they did roam the streets by day.

As he reached the park, Tony scanned the horizon to make sure no one would see him emerging from the woods. He hated being seen as a homeless person, and being caught waking up in a park seemed about as undignified as being seen taking a shit. This was why he insisted on scrapping for the money that he used to buy his food. It might not have been a job, but it was his work, and he was getting by on his own right. The park was clear, so Tony made his way across the picnic and playground area. Sometimes he’d sit near the playground for hours on mornings in the summer months, when stay-at-home parents and babysitters brought children to play. He sat far enough away to avoid the glares of the more suspicious folks, who doubtlessly presumed he was some kind of pervert, but close enough to appreciate the innocent joy and pain of the children playing. He was sort of a sponge; he couldn’t help but be infected by the carefree spirit of the kids. If doing heroin was really anything like being a child again, as he’d once heard it was, he could understand why it would be so addictive. As he passed by the swing-set, he longed for the return of the warmer months and the children playing. Soon enough. Not much traffic on the street, he noticed, crossing from the park to the business district. Maybe he’d woken up a bit earlier than he’d thought.

Walking through the downtown area wasn’t bad in the morning. Later in the afternoon, more panhandlers would be out asking for hand-outs, and pedestrians would try to preempt any solicitations from Tony with dirty looks. In the mornings, the business types were too wrapped up in their thoughts about the day ahead of them or still trying to wake up, and they treated Tony with indifference that he found comfortable. He recalled a time when he’d been the one to ignore the urban landscape that he now had to pay close attention to. The few people he passed on the street this morning showed no signs of noticing him, making the walk a pleasant one.

As he approached the bakery, Tony caught the scent of fresh pastries, which directed his attention once again to the empty feeling in his gut. The smell alone was enough to tease his stomach, which responded with pangs demanding substance. His gaze fell involuntarily on the croissants and Danish in the window, and he couldn’t seem to avert his eyes, so he quickened his pace to get past. Memories of fresh Danish or warm scones with butter in the morning floated in the air around the bakery, trying hard to creep into his mind through his nose. It would be possible, at the right time of day, to go to the dumpster around back and get some of the leftovers, pastries no longer fresh enough for the paying customers, but Tony refused to go there, if for no other reason because he didn’t want to spoil his good memories of baked goods with stale rejects from a dumpster in an alley. Fatigue or weakness was overtaking the muscles in his arms and legs, so he stopped once he’d made it far enough to be free of the smell of the bakery. He leaned against the brick wall of the next building to regain his strength. It was just the temptation from the bakery; coffee and a cigarette could curb his appetite until later in the day, and he was almost halfway to the gas station. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing as the feelings of weakness waxed and waned with each breath. He began to feel stronger. He could make it.

If he was willing to forgo the coffee, he could pick up some sort of little snack if he wanted to, a pack of donuts or maybe granola bars, but he quickly discarded the idea, not wanting to sacrifice the coffee, and worse—end up hungrier later. It was better to eat nothing at all than to eat just a little bit, because if he waited an hour, his feelings of hunger would subside, but if he had a snack, he’d end up twice as hungry in two hours, with no money to do anything about it. Eating had become a vicious cycle for him; the more frequently he ate, the more often he found himself hungry. Coffee and a cigarette would give him the steam to get out and find enough pop-cans or other salvage to get money for dinner, and with how hungry he was, he was determined to get enough for a painfully filling evening meal. One meal a day, especially if it had lots of protein, was quite sufficient to keep him moderately healthy. It wasn’t like he was withering away.

Once the gas station was in sight, relief passed through him, giving him a renewed sense of hope. Each step felt easier to take and he lost sight of everything except the entrance. He reached into his pants pocket on the right side, the only pocket without holes, to fumble with his money. He hated having to try to get his change out while standing at the counter—the clerks’ patience wore thin quickly when he did—so he made sure to count out the proper change and have it ready before going to the counter. His twenty-four ounce cup of coffee would cost a dollar sixty-seven, and he had a dollar eighty-one when he checked the night before. As he made his way across the gas station parking lot, he pulled coins from his right pocket and placed them into his left hand one at a time, keeping track of the total in his head. He was up to a dollar fifty-four when he approached the door, where he stopped walking so he could finish his counting.

A woman, probably in her thirties, opened the door and walked out, giving Tony a meek smile when their eyes met briefly. She looked down at the ground quickly, but stood holding the door open. He realized that she was holding the door for him so he began to walk in, half-coughing as he tried to clear his throat to utter a Thank-You. Talking to a woman as attractive as this one—dark brown hair, fair complexion, stunning green eyes, and a slender, almost athletic build—was without exception the most humiliating experience he could imagine in his current state. He managed to get his Thank-You out almost intelligibly as he walked through the doorway holding a random assortment of coins in each hand. Had his smell disgusted her? Did she think he was stupid for barely being able to thank her? He wished she would’ve walked out without paying attention to him, or better, that he would’ve counted out his change farther from the entrance, and she wouldn’t have seen him at all. This act of kindness, insignificant to her, had made him grossly uncomfortable. If only it could’ve been a man holding the door for him. The woman was an unpleasant reminder of something he missed, maybe more than anything else—affection. He sighed as he looked at the change in his left hand. He would have to count it again.

When he’d gotten a dollar sixty-seven counted out in his left hand, he clenched the hand into a fist and walked down the aisles, trying hard not to notice the candy bars and bags of chips whose shiny packaging screamed in his peripheral vision. How much would the company really lose if he lifted one bag of peanuts? Keep moving; the coffee is straight ahead. He fixed his eyes on the stack of cups and refused to look away. He managed to make it to the end of the aisle without being swayed by the immense gravity of temptation.

He pulled one of the twenty-four ounce Styrofoam cups from the stack with his right hand, his other hand still gripping the change in a tight fist, and placed it under the coffee urn. He filled the cup and set it by the stack of lids, where he found the appropriate lid and placed it carefully on top. He could feel the sweat building against the cold metal of the coins that he clutched in his left hand, urging him to hurry as he attempted to secure the lid with one hand. At least he didn’t have a dollar bill in his fist, soaking up sweat. That was always embarrassing. But not as embarrassing as the time he knocked over a full cup of coffee during his one-handed lid-affixing procedure on one cold winter morning. He’d made a mess all over the counter, spilled coffee down the front of his pants, and dropped his change all over the floor. The clerk who’d been working that day helped him clean the mess and told Tony he could pour himself another cup. Tony thought he should pay for the cup he spilled, but the clerk insisted that he only needed to pay for one cup, so he graciously accepted. It had been at least a year since the last time Tony had seen that clerk, and Tony imagined that he was probably doing well for himself, wherever he had gone. He was a really nice kid.

Tony walked up to the counter with his cup of coffee and fistful of change and waited as a young man paid for gas and a bottle of soda. When it was his turn, Tony placed his coffee and his change on the counter, carefully with the change so it wouldn’t scatter. The clerk thanked him, and Tony responded with a Thank-You much more understandable than when he’d responded to the woman at the door. He took his coffee from the counter and walked outside, ready to enjoy his morning cigarette at long last.

The best, closest place to sit and smoke was a bench on the other side of the street. Some mornings, Tony waited for a bus to come and go before sitting on the bench, so as not to confuse the bus driver by appearing as though he was waiting for a ride. He didn’t have the patience, this time, so he made his way to the bench without delay. His hunger demanded something, and the coffee would be his answer. He took a seat on the bench, sitting on the end farthest from the intersection, and set his cup of coffee beside him. He got out his thin, yellow foil pouch and unfolded it to reveal the dry, stringy tobacco and a pack of cigarette papers. Probably another day’s worth of tobacco left, Tony noticed as he pulled out enough for one cigarette. He rolled it carefully, his back turned to the gentle breeze, and then exchanged the pouch for the lighter in his pocket. He sat back and relaxed, the cigarette in his left hand and lighter in his right. It was a beautiful day, and this was his favorite part of any day, beautiful or otherwise. He put his cigarette in his mouth and held the flame to it, taking a puff to get it burning. The familiar feeling of smoke in his throat and lungs sent sensations of gratification in waves through his body. He felt his muscles loosening as he exhaled the first drag, his shoulders dropped and his legs went limp. He took another deep drag, the smoke not too harsh or too mellow, indicating that the tobacco had reached the perfect moistness. He picked up his coffee and sipped gently, testing the temperature and taste, and then drank more eagerly. The coffee was good and fresh and had cooled enough since he poured it that he could enjoy it without burning his mouth. With a large gulp, Tony reeled in his enjoyment of this simple pleasure that gave him the motivation he needed to get through each day.

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” he thought with a chuckle. This park bench, the coffee and cigarette, the bright blue sky with only patches of fluffy white clouds; this was his nutshell, and he ruled it with joyful benevolence.

His feelings of ecstasy had peaked and began to decline, then his thoughts drifted to the rest of the day—the loathsome chore of surviving until this very same time of the following day. He was nearly half-finished with his cigarette and had about a quarter of the cup of coffee left, and each time he tried to enjoy a drag or a sip, he couldn’t help but think about how he was bringing himself that much closer to the end his respite. He continued to smoke and drink his coffee, trying to put the thoughts out of his mind, but he was growing restless. The restlessness was familiar; he’d experienced this nagging sense of despair before.

He impatiently flipped what was left of his cigarette into the street and kicked back his cup of coffee to finish it off. The moment was over; his nutshell had shattered. He looked down the street to his left, wondering where he should begin the day’s search for scraps. He tried to think of what day of the week it was, which garbage routes would be collecting the next day, but he was having a hard time focusing. He could see a man walking in his direction about half a block away and he began to feel rushed. He didn’t want to be sitting on the bench when the man reached him. Another pang of hunger came, a sharp sensation in his stomach that pushed him past the threshold of patience. He stood quickly and began to walk. He only made it a few steps, however, before his legs gave out under the weight of his body, which had lost all strength to support itself.

“Hey! Hey, man! Are you okay?” A young man was on his knees at Tony’s side, shaking him gently. As Tony regained his wits, he recognized the young man as the one he’d seen walking toward him down the street. “You fell out, man! Are you alright? Are you feeling okay?” Tony sat up slightly, trying to piece together what had happened. His shoulder hurt a bit, presumably from falling, but it was overshadowed by the empty feeling in his stomach. He looked up at the young man, whose light blue eyes projected genuine concern.

“I. . . I’m fine,” Tony insisted softly, tears forming in his eyes. He wiped them away with his shirt sleeve, not wanting to see the young man’s reaction. Who could feel anything but disgust for such a wretched person?

“You’re sure?” the young man asked softly, still gently holding onto Tony’s shoulder.

“Maybe I could call someone, or walk you to a hospital so they can check you out, don’t you think?”

Tony shook his head at the man, still not looking at his face, and pulled away from him as he struggled to get back on his feet.

“I’ll be alright,” he said more firmly, “I just got a bit dizzy; that’s all.” He was back on his feet, and the young man stood with a puzzled look on his face as Tony walked away trying to seem as calm and composed as possible.

It was over, he told himself as he put distance between himself and the Samaritan. Soon he would be pulling valuable scraps of metal from dumpsters and putting together his stake for the day, and he would feel so much better with a nice, hearty meal. He could do this.

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