“Hey, Teddy,” I called to the bearded man sitting outside my morning Starbucks stop, his battered piece of cardboard clutched in grubby hands. “How’s the morning?”
He looked up at me, his eyebrows drawing together with distrust – but then smoothing out as he recognized me. “Fancy Dave!” he answered, pulling back his lips to show me a grin mostly bereft of teeth. “And how is selling the world today, eh?”
“Oh, usual. Same as always.” I reached into my pocket, feeling around for a dollar, maybe a few quarters, whatever I had for loose change. It was mostly automatic by this point, a ritual that had become ingrained in my morning routine, as unthinking as pulling on socks before shoes.
My questing fingers didn’t find anything at first, so I stepped over to one side to avoid blocking the entrance to the busy coffee shop. Other business types, wearing the same costume of a suit and tie that I had on, bustled in and out. Some of them were young, still holding their heads up and striding with the purposeful energy of youth. Others were older, their hair either dyed to cover up their age, or wearing the gray and white with injured dignity. They only spared me the briefest of glances, and none of them seemed to even acknowledge Teddy’s presence at all.
I’d been like them, once, until a couple months back. Going into the coffee shop, all my attention had been focused on my phone as I composed an email response to a panicked sat-minute request for budget documents. Not looking where I was going, I literally ended up tripping over the man.
Apologies came pouring out of my mouth automatically, even before I saw that it was a street person with which I’d collided. But Teddy shrugged the whole thing off, wheezing out that he’d take a coffee as apology.
“Something hot,” he grunted, rubbing together gnarled hands, fingertips poking out of tattered gloves. “A cold morning, it is!”
Feeling bad for the poor guy, I bought him a big latte, with extra milk and shots, figuring that he could probably use the calories more than the caffeine. I intended to just hand it off to him, but Teddy managed to speak up before I could escape off to catch my bus.
“What’s your name, fancy man?” he asked, eyeing my suit.
“David. David Myers.”
“Ooh, Fancy Dave,” Teddy grinned, giving me my first glimpse of his askew teeth. “Look at you, Fancy Dave! You off to go fire people? Be a king of these steel towers?”
I laughed, feeling a bit uncomfortable. “Not nearly. I’m just a sales manager.”
The words probably didn’t even mean anything to the homeless man, but he kept up his affable grin, took a big sip of his drink. “Ahh!” he proclaimed, as I tried to ignore the slurping. “That’s good! Nice and warm, just what these old bones need!”
I risked a glance up the street, but something made me ask one more question before turning away. “And, uh, what’s your name?” I tried.
He beamed up at me. “Teddy. I’m Teddy. Like the bear!” He laughed uproariously, and I had to smile at his open mirth.
And that brief little interaction seemed to break the dam of the levels between our respective social stations. Each day after that, I’d make a point to say hello to Teddy as I stopped in for my hit of caffeine, handing him a couple dollars, sometimes a granola bar, sometimes buying him a drink if it was cold outside, or a muffin if it was warm.
Guiltily, I admitted at night sometimes that I didn’t do this little mitzvah out of altruism. Helping out Teddy, even just acknowledging his presence, made me feel a little superior to the other businesspeople who rushed around with me. I felt like I did something to stand out from the faceless masses. I did something to help this unfortunate! I might work the same soul-sucking jobs as they did, but at least this small act helped to keep my conscience slightly cleaner!
It probably wasn’t enough. I didn’t ask about Teddy’s background. I didn’t know if he slept on the streets, if he had any kind of illness, if he even got enough to eat. He was just… just Teddy, there every day, giving that silly, innocent grin to the waves of people who swept past him with no more attention than if he was another discarded coffee cup.
Now, I pulled my hands out of my pockets, empty. No loose change. “Sorry, don’t have a dollar today, Teddy,” I told the homeless man. “What do you want from the menu?”
“Oh, Fancy Dave, too kind!” he rasped, grinning as always. “How about something tasty and warm?”
“You got it.”
I ducked inside, smiled at the barista, Wendy. In her late twenties, she was finishing up a graduate degree in psychology, had an enticing smile that always felt a little more personal to me, less professional than the smiles that she gave the other customers. I knew in my head that she wasn’t really flirting with me, didn’t see me as anything but another faceless patron – but a little part of me still wondered guiltily if she had a boyfriend, slipped her into the occasional aroused daydream.
“Morning, David,” she greeted me, brushing coppery strands of hair back behind one pale earlobe as she smiled at me.
“Morning, Wendy,” I answered, forcing my eyes to not dip down to check out the neckline of her shirt where it met the green employee apron. I hated myself for fantasizing about this woman who was probably a decade my junior. She had surprisingly red lips. I wondered if it was lipstick.
“The usual today?”
I pulled my attention back to the present as I realized she was talking to me. “And one of those ham and egg sandwiches. For Teddy.” I wondered if I pointed out that it was for the homeless guy as a way to impress her.
Wendy just smiled, turned away to get my order ready. I held my phone against the scanner, joined the line of other suited customers waiting for their addictions to be fed.
Outside, I tapped Teddy on the shoulder, then held the sandwich down to him. “As you requested, man,” I said. I didn’t call other people man, but it seemed to be the right word for him.
Teddy grinned, happily taking a big sniff of the sandwich. “Oh, Fancy Dave. I’m going to miss you,” he said, before taking a bite that seemed far too big, considering his relative lack of teeth.
I paused before heading away, down to catch my bus. “Miss me?”
“Yup.” Still holding the sandwich in one hand, his cardboard sign in the other, Teddy struggled up to his feet. “Winter’s coming, Fancy Dave. Gotta head off to warmer spots.”
“Oh.” I’d never considered that Teddy might leave. He’d been a fixture, as permanent as a fire hydrant. “Well, okay. Good luck, I guess.”
“And here!” Suddenly, I found something thrust out, practically into my arms. I took it, mostly by reflex, and then looked down – at a pair of dirty sneakers.
“They’re magic, Fancy Dave,” Teddy went on, as I opened my mouth and scrambled for a polite refusal. “Let you achieve things, they do!” He beamed. “How I got all I did, you know!”
And then, as I tried to process the paradoxical nature of this last remark, Teddy stepped away, ambling off down the street.
What? I glanced after him, down at the dirty shoes in my hands, tried to think. I couldn’t bring these with me to the office, couldn’t even carry them on the bus. And could I really believe Teddy’s ramblings? Finally, not knowing what else to do, I stowed them around the corner, next to the dumpster in the alley beside the Starbucks.
On the bus to work, I tried to think about the coffee shop, about my morning routine, without Teddy. Somehow, in a way that I couldn’t quite explain, it felt sadder and emptier. I barely knew the man, but he’d become a part of my daily life.
Alone in my thoughts among the other business types on the bus, I weathered the bumps and jolts as we headed downtown.