ones and zeroes

Better living through modern chemistry.

3.16.2006

I know a man named Detroit.

I don't know what it is about Detroit but from the first moment that I laid eyes upon him, I felt some sort of distant kinship with the man. It was a mix of pity and curiosity, I suppose, and the clincher was simply the reading I gave our eye contact moment.

It was early in my tenure at Google when I got off the F line at the 42nd Street subway station one day and got in line with the rest of the ants for the long march up the stairs. I saw Detroit sitting there with his back against the wall on a platform between sets of steps, holding a paper cup and smiling hopefully at all the passersby, not begging so much as trying to make the briefest of connections. I opened my wallet and emptied the contents of one compartment into my hand, a dollar's worth of change or so, subsequently dropping the change into his cup.

His gratitude was sincere, and there was just a certain rapport between us, some sort of je ne sais quoi.

Sometimes he is there, sometimes he is not. I try to give him money whenever I can, and it's funny, because there are other homeless "regulars" in my different daily routines who I will ritualistically snub in much the same way I will ritualistically give to Detroit.

One day when I was leaving work I went down into the Subway and saw him there. I pulled out my wallet on reflexand he put his hand gently on my arm and told me, "You a good man, you know dat? I know you look out fuh me 'n ah really 'ppreciate that. You don' hafta be givin' me money every time you see me, cause I know you lookin' out for me." It kind of killed me. It stirred up a whole mess of wonderment on the train ride back home that evening.

I started wondering about my own subconscious motivation. I had felt a little good, a little proud, to be told by this poor soul that I was, in his eyes at least, a "good man" but I knew I couldn't let that get to my head.

I still see Detroit now and then. I didn't even know his name was Detroit until yesterday. Leaving the subway in the morning he stopped me.

"Yo' name's Mike, right?"

"No, my name's Danny."

"Danny. Danny. Oh, okay...yeah, you a good man Danny, always lookin' out. They's a few of you who's always good to me and I really thank y'all for it. There's a Mike, and a Ted, and a John, and a Jonathan, and y'all really helpin' me out. Ah kin only hope to get myself fixed up one day and repay y'all somehow for yah kindness."

"I hope you can, too.." I said, meaning fix himself up more than find a way of paying me back. "What's your name?"

"Mah name's Detroit," he answered, with a sharp accent on the DEE. "I ain't never been there, neither, but my daddy came from Detroit to New York and that's what he named me. Not many people got this name."

The crowd swelled around us - another F train had come and gone, depositing commuters to empty out in to the streets where they would breathe crisp winter air only briefly before ducking into systematically ventilated office buildings. A breeze washed over the two of us as we shook hands, and I could feel the toughness of life in his dry, ashy skin.

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