Reprinted from Spring 1993, Volume 1, Issue #0
There's always something about them that gives them away. Sometimes it's the manner in which they walk, you know, kind of hunched forward, eyes glancing sideways, and their muscles, obviously tensing at the slightest movement or noise. Or the way they always carry one of those gawdawful plastic shopping bags with the bright red and purple flower designs.
Of course, when you've been hustling handouts on the street as long as I have, over six years now, you get to know the regulars. Regular as clockwork, they are.
The 1st and the 15th of every month they retrieve their small allotment checks from their mailboxes, and then begin the pilgrimage to their banks. Why they simply don't have the checks automatically deposited to their accounts, I'll never understand. But then again, if they trusted the banks, I suppose I'd be out of business in no time!
I'd spent a great deal of effort recently watching one of the tenants of the Farlington Arms. Strange old woman. Short and stooped with rolls of excess skin hanging from her cheeks and arms. I imagine in her younger days she was a pretty hefty woman. Looks like she doesn't weigh more than 100 pounds now, if that. Only the flapping folds of old skin belie the fact that she was once fat. Most of her teeth are missing, too. All in all, not a very well-preserved specimen of city living.
Most of the occupants of the Farlington Arms are old people like her. Some have lived there since the place was originally converted from a hotel into the one-room holes that are now called "studio apartments." I guess rent goes for about $425 a month now, and all that buys you is enough room for a bed and a chair or two. None of the rooms have kitchens. Hell, they don't even have bathrooms. Only one bathroom per floor.
They had three fires in there last winter. Just carelessness. People forgetting to turn off their hot plates, the firemen said. Couple of the old gals died from the smoke, I heard.
I wouldn't want to live like that if I was old.
Anyway, this old woman I been watching. She leaves the building about 8:30 every morning. Just like clockwork. Same routine everyday.
She stops to drop a quarter in the cup of the blind man who sits on the steps of her building. Then she seems to hold her breath as she hobbles past the drunken men propped against the building, wasted from the night's drinking and smelling of urine, sweat, and cheap booze.
Eventually she makes her way to the park three blocks away where she sits, for hours, feeding the pigeons and seagulls. Here in San Francisco, the pigeons outnumber the seagulls by about 50 to 1. What a mess they make. No park bench or passerby is ever safe from their shit. You might just be sitting there dozing when some pigeon will fly over and relieve himself on your head or arm with a smelly warm blob. And the ones that aren't shitting on you are rousting you for food. Sit down with a bag of french fries from McDonald's and 30 or 40 of the buggers will start moving in on you. They don't even shy away from grabbing the fries right out of the bag.
I never did know her name. No one else seemed to either. I guess "old woman" is just as good a name for her as any.
Today being the 15th, she made one detour on her way to her favorite park bench. The bank.
I guess she must have been hard of hearing. Didn't even seem to hear the footsteps running up from behind her. But, as my hands closed around her purse, she tensed, and a garbled sound gurgled in her throat.
She clutched the worn handbag with all her strength. I had underestimated her strength! Could she be an undercover policewoman, perhaps? My thoughts began to reel. No, no one could have a disguise that good. She couldn't be a cop. I tugged at the purse with short, quick motions.
"Let go of the purse, Old Woman," I demanded feverishly, "Or I'll slap you."
She seemed to struggle more vigorously. In another moment she might think to scream . . . I made one last lunge.
For a moment the wrinkles in her face eased and her tired eyes seemed almost to smile, and then her head struck the concrete. I heard the thwack sound and saw with horror the blood and brain tissue begin spilling onto the sidewalk.
Running . . . running until my lungs felt as if they would burst. Not even stopping as I rummaged through her handbag--a sack of bread crumbs, an overripe banana, and a few used tissues. No money. No check either. Just a note scrawled in the wavering, almost illegible script of a trembling hand on a scrap of paper.
"Thank you," it read, "I've been waiting so very long to die."
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