Mumbles the Bum

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He appeared in front of me as I stood outside the office building, having a smoke, waiting. He was a few inches taller than me, but thin. He wore a dark sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over his head and tied tight beneath his chin. His hands and face, from what I could tell of them, were coated with shit. He had tiny dog eyes and his front teeth were missing. His mouth moved, but I heard no sound.

"Pardon?" I asked. His mouth moved again, and I squinted at him, trying to read the pattern. He gestured with two fingers at my left hand, then at his own face.

"Smoke?" I asked. He nodded quickly, almost imperceptibly.

Despite how expensive these things were becoming, I reached into my breast pocket, slid one out and handed it to him. He put it to his mouth for a moment, then pulled it away, letting it dangle between his fingers, his hand hanging in the air in front of his chest. He stared at me.

"Light?" I asked. He didn't even nod this time, but his eyes moved slightly, so I took that as a yes.

I unzipped my bag, reached in and pulled out a new book of matches. They were good matches. Easy to light.

He held out his left hand, and I dropped the matches into his palm.

"You can keep those," I said. I looked around, waiting for him to leave. He put the cigarette in his mouth again, then opened the book and pulled a match loose. He tried to light the match once, twice, but it didn't catch. He stood there in front of me with the cold cigarette in his mouth, the dead matches in his hands. His lips moved again, and I began to wonder if he had any trouble keeping that cigarette in place, what with having no teeth and all.

"Pardon?" I asked again. He was clearly trying to say something he expected me to understand. I put my head down and moved my ear closer. This was a dangerous move, I know-I'd been suckered in by the whole "whispering" routine before. I wasn't expecting anything sneaky from this guy, though-it just seemed to be his way.

His voice came out in the tiniest of hoarse whispers. "Name's Bob," he said.

"Well hello there, Bob."

His mouth was at it again. "You work in here?" His left hand (the one with the matchbook) raised slightly, gesturing at the building behind me.

"Yeah," I nodded, but didn't tell him anything more. I wasn't in the mood for any new friends hanging around the office. His mouth began to move, and once again, I lowered my head and turned my ear his way. My hearing isn't so hot anymore, but much to my surprise, I usually do a pretty good job of interpreting the uninterpretable-the incoherent mumblers and the old rummies who feel they have something of great importance to share with me. Sometimes it takes a few good minutes of hard listening to latch onto the patterns and cadences, trying to home in on any familiar words. Once I do, however-once I hook into it-things are fine. Even if I miss a few words here and there, I can oft-times fill in the blanks. At least well enough to get the gist of things.

I had to ask this guy to repeat himself a few times-he only spoke a few words at a stretch-before I caught it. At least what he said made sense-which wasn't always the case with the mumblers.

"Why do you wear that hat?" he rasped, barely audible.

"Oh," I said, straightening up again. "I like this hat. What's wrong with it?" I leaned in again to catch his response.

"Ratty ol' hat."

I straightened again. "It's useful," I told him. "It keeps my hair out of my face." I figured that was enough. I turned my ear again.

"What's with the hair?"

"I'm lazy."

He shook his head. Or maybe it was a small tremor of some kind. "No," he whispered. "That's not why."

This time I just shrugged, not thinking at the time (Morgan would later point this out) that my appearance was being critiqued by a bum who was covered in his own filth.

"Wear that hat," he said, gesturing slightly, "that hair. Everybody sees you. Everybody knows you."

"Not much of anybody knows me," I told him. Christ, I was in absolutely no mood for the Wise Bum shtick. As time passed, it was becoming easier to understand what the hell he was saying, but I was no longer sure I wanted to. His cigarette remained unlit. I took a quick look around, hoping for an out. I couldn't just step back inside the building, figuring he'd just follow me.

"You're trying to be something," he continued. "Something not like everyone. What?"

Man, now I know why they executed Socrates-because you get right down to it, Socrates was a big, ugly, smelly pain in the ass.

"I uhh?" I began. "I'm not?"

I caught some movement out of the corner of my left eye. Someone was headed toward us. I looked up and saw Morgan. She looked worried. Oh, thank God.

"Well, Bob, gotta go," I said, raising a hand in a quick farewell. "You enjoy that smoke now, y'hear?" I took Morgan by the arm, spun her around and headed away from him, back down 7th Ave. toward a place where, with luck, no strangers would see fit to point out my obvious failings.

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