In a narrow stoop at 1272 Market Street, a man huddles under a piece of cardboard for warmth. His body no longer knows how to shiver with the cold. He knows he’s not supposed to be there, but he has no place else to go.
The City is freezing at night, an unforgiving forest of lifeless concrete that affords little sanctuary for the people who dwell on the streets there. The winds from the coast would chill you to death as quickly as the sea herself if you let them. This frail skeleton of a man hasn’t the strength to fight for other spots. Already, his left forearm takes an unnatural turn from where it was fractured in an assault and left to heal on its own. He sleeps in this hollow carpeted stair because the SFPD know his story, and here he is safe to sleep until he can sleep no more.
He carries in his pockets the stale crumbs from the occasional bagel or muffin he can panhandle during the days. And though he is starving, he saves them not for himself, but for the pigeons. The pigeons are his friends, almost his only friends. Everyone familiar to Market Street knows this crazy old man talks incessantly to the pesky scavengers that litter the sidewalks and an occasional 3-piece Armani with their droppings. What the police know, that the average person who might toss him a dime or a quarter during the day does not, is that this man hears them whisper.
“It’s not the return that matters,” Daniel whispered. Alfonse cocked his head in confusion. The band around his neck shifted from purple to green with the gesture. “It’s all about exposure. We’re not trying to make…”
A sharp jolt broke Daniel’s slumber. He rolled over and squinted up into the beam of Officer Walker’s flashlight. It was sometimes hard now to make the distinction between what was a dream and what was not. Alfonse was gone. But he had been there right? Trying to warn him of something. Why would he be there at night? It must have been a dream. Another firm toe to the bottom of his heel shook him.
“Come on, Dan,” the officer’s voice insisted. “It’s been a rough night, but you know you have to go. Same as always. Look, we brought you coffee.”
The promise of warmth forced Daniel upright in his stoop. His blurry eyes focused on the McDonald’s label. Shaky hands reached out involuntarily to take the paper cup, desperate for the heat.
“Careful, you don’t want to spill it.” Dave Walker’s voice was friendly. The vagrants on Market Street were not always easy to deal with. Daniel was an exception. He had been told repeatedly he couldn’t sleep in the entrance at 1272, but the only trouble he had ever caused was his insistence on returning there after the owl shift had kicked him out. So every morning at 5:30 Dave and his partner gave him a wake-up call to keep the dollar store owner from filing another complaint.
Dave often wondered about his predecessor’s words. “He’s harmless,” Officer McRandal had said when they first walked the beat together. Dave missed the old man’s noticeable Scottish accent. “Thinks the pigeons talk he does, and he’s particular to the ones in that alcove up there. Just shove him off before the key gets here.” Eighteen months later, Daniel still insisted the birds shared secrets with him, and that one day they would make him rich.
One thing was sure. Daniel had some kind of story. A young man with a briefcase, frequently took the time to stop and listen to Daniel’s ranting. Listen or not, he always handed Daniel a single. Once, Dave had overheard him muttering as he walked away. “Damn shame. All that knowledge wasted…” But Daniel showed no signs of going anywhere, and he was desperate for the occasional cup of coffee Dave and his partner brought.
The hot liquid burned Daniel’s chapped lips, but he didn’t care. Life surged through him as the caffeine and the sugar scourged his starving body with false nourishment. He wasn’t hungry. His stomach was so used to starvation that it didn’t really work anymore, but coffee meant warmth. Warmth meant life.
Today was the day. Daniel had a plan that was going to get him off the street. He had been working with Alfonse for months, teaching the pigeon to read lips. Alfonse could fly high up the office buildings and perch on ledges. Today was the day Alfonse was going to try. If it worked, Daniel would have a little feathered spy to whisper him the closed-door secrets of the whole Financial District.
Tired, cold, and as grey as his concrete hell, Daniel struggled to his feet. He folded up the cardboard that was his home, and tucked it underneath his arm. He would find Alfonse in a little while, but first, it was time to look in on Ginnie as he did every morning.
If Daniel had a girlfriend, if there was such a thing, then Ginnie was that girlfriend. She wasn’t a lover, not like that. Daniel had to stand upwind from her rotten teeth just to talk to her. He’d long ago forgotten any desire for sex, or even for a prerequisite bath.
Sometimes Daniel watched the pigeons clean each others’ feathers. It might be fun to imagine that they whispered sweet nothings to each other, but pigeons are no strangers to the street. He knew they were just greedy for the nourishment in the tasty parasites that hid beneath. There was no love on the street.
Ginnie was human companionship, someone who was glad to see him when he came. And she was someone who cared for him enough that when she had extra and he didn’t, she shared it, because she trusted him to do the same. In his desolate world, that was far better than sex, far better than love. And so she was his girlfriend.
She had a whole shopping cart full of her belongings, including tools to help her break into construction sites or condemned buildings in secrecy. It was only two and a half blocks to the office renovation project where she camped with work there stopped due to an overrun. Daniel slowly and stiffly made his way around the corner and down the street. He reached the alleyway, pretended he was undoing his pants to urinate so no one would follow, ducked in, and stepped behind the board he knew Ginnie had pried the nails from.
The dim morning light through the rafters above illuminated the outline of Ginnie’s body where she lay. Daniel stood and watched her for a minute in silence while his eyes adjusted. Her shopping cart was gone. Her blankets were gone. He knew she wasn’t asleep. Hypothermia had taken her away. A trickle of blood from her face, frozen there in time, told the tale of her struggle to keep her only earthly possessions.
Daniel staggered forward and knelt beside her body. He lay down with her, and for the first time since they had been friends, he wrapped his arms around her and held her. They cuddled there, the dead and the lifeless, until their silence was disturbed by the flutter of wings and the forced guttural coos that a pigeon’s flapping sometimes causes.
Of course Alfonse had followed him. He was such a smart bird! He knew where Ginnie’s camp was. Daniel rolled over and fished in his pocket for the crumbs he could find there and held them out in his hand. Alfonse waddled confidently over to take them as he had so many times before. This time Daniel closed his hand around Alfonse’ throat.
“Why didn’t you warn me?” he asked apathetically. “I could have saved her.”
Alfonse blinked quietly. Pigeons are such stupid birds. Daniel wrung his purple and green neck. Letting his dreams and months of preparation fall to the ground with a tiny thud in the pigeon’s limp body, he remembered… Alfonse had tried.
© 2012 Anne Schilde