Freddie and Me

Freddie watches from the shadows. I’m not aware that he’s watching me, not at first.  Not until it is too late.

I had thought I could get my mind off of my personal problems by getting out of the house and having a laugh. It didn’t work. Show over, now my companion and I are walking through the city at night, invisible to the million-dollar penthouses high above, and I am once again rambling on about the hurt of a divorce that I don’t want and have tried to avoid. I am not coping well, and I know it.

Divorce is hard enough.  When the woman you love won’t even speak to you, it is unbearable. I try to explain this to my friend but choke, and the tears begin to flow again. I pause my walk and sit on a low retaining wall in front of a darkened building, as I try to compose myself.

My friend asks, “So what did she tell you?”

“Nothing. Not a damn thing,” I tell her.  “She had gotten her own place, but we were still working on things, you know? She refused my offer to come along with me and bring her kids on the trip for my daughter’s graduation, and so we reluctantly went ahead without her. That’s when it all changed.”

I can’t seem to stop talking. I ramble on, giving too much background information and never really answering her question.

“After I got back into town, my mother tried to reach her but couldn’t, so I called. I couldn’t get through either.  That was unusual. I got worried about her safety, so I went to her apartment.  She wasn’t there, but the callbox rings to her cell phone. When she answered, it immediately disconnected.  That was weird too, right? I had no idea then, but she was just hanging up on me!  I was worried about her.  I started to call the police; I even dialed 911, but before I placed the call, I realized it was Sunday afternoon, so she might be at the grocery store. That would explain the issues getting through to her phone, also.  I was relieved to see her car in the parking lot! The last time I’d seen her, we’d had dinner together. Now, just 9 days later, when she saw me she flipped out, telling me to stay away from her, causing a scene, saying she wasn’t talking to me anymore. That’s how she told me.”

My friend is silent.  There’s really nothing she can say even if she could find the words. Even then, nothing would make it easier. She knows this, and so for the moment she just listens, and shivers in the crisp November air.

That’s when Freddie spots me. My guard is down, and I’m vulnerable.

“She was just screaming at me,” I cry. “Screaming! Everyone in the store was staring. She told me not to speak to her.  She told me to get away. I had no idea why.  I still don’t even know what happened, and it’s four months later. I just stood there, stammering. She just changed, like overnight.”

I sniff and wipe the tears from my eyes yet again and look up.  That’s when I see Freddie approaching. 

Freddie is tall and broad-shouldered, but thin.  In the dark, with the streetlights behind him, his silhouette is imposing. He also lacks the awareness to see he’s intruding on a difficult moment. He’s either getting ready to rob me, or asking for a handout. I’m instantly on the defensive. He speaks, but I can’t tell what he’s saying, either because he’s speaking softly or because my mind is reeling.

“I’m sorry,” I respond before thinking.  “What did you say?”

From the looks of him, he doesn’t eat much.  From the smell of him, he doesn’t seem to bathe much, either.  I’m not sure what Freddie’s drug of choice is, but as I get a better look, it’s pretty apparent he has a favorite.  His uncombed hair and his shaky voice underscore the point. 

Realizing now that he’s probably only looking for a handout, for just a second I consider pretending he isn’t there, ignoring the interruption as I deal with my own issues. It’s too late for that though; I’ve already spoken to him.

Freddie manages a meager smile.  “First of all,” he speaks slowly, “thank you for acknowledging me.”  As he says this, he dips his head a little and raises his hands slightly, as if to say he’s not a danger.

His voice is soft and gentle, and now I realize he is also nervous.

“Thank you for acknowledging me,” he repeats with another nod.  “Most people won’t acknowledge me.” 

Perhaps he realizes that would’ve been my preference too, and I feel guilty for it.

“What do you need?,” I ask, a little annoyed. I’m still sniffling and embarrassed, trying to hide the fact I’ve been crying.

“I’m just trying to get a little money to get a train ticket home,” he says.  Do you have a few dollars that I could have?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any cash at all,” I lie.  I’m confident that if I give Freddie any money, he’ll be drinking it or smoking it or shooting it into his veins soon.

He looks disappointed.  He’s gentle, but jaded.

I’m not sure why, but there’s something about him that affects me. I get a sense of injustice about him, like I’m not the only one to tell him an untruth. I’m taken aback by both his thanks for a simple acknowledgement — as if it is a gift I have given him — and the guilt I feel for not wanting to give it. Before I have a chance to think it through, I’m compelled to make him an offer.

“I’ll tell you what: If you need a train ticket, I’ll walk with you to the station and get you one.”

I’m surprised at my suggestion and surprised when he accepts the offer; I wonder if I misjudged him and he really is trying to get home, instead of a fix. As we walk along my friend, now a little wide-eyed, holds on to my arm and stays close.  The silence is awkward, and I try to engage Freddie in conversation.  He’s reluctant to talk; I keep trying anyway. I don’t think to ask him his name.

“So do a lot of people just refuse to talk to you?,” I ask. 

“Most of them pretend I’m not there,” he says.  Again, this troubles and convicts me. He doesn’t elaborate.

As we near the train station, I ask Freddie if there’s anything else he needs.  Is he hungry?  Yes he is, and I offer to walk with him to a nearby grocery, but he declines.  Instead, he’d just like some noodles from the gas station if it’s not too much trouble.  I find this to be odd, because I’m offering what I think is a far better option. Nevertheless, he’s bent on that gas station. Very well.

We get the train ticket and he leads me up another block.  We enter into the glow of fluorescent lights, shuffle past the pumps, and step into the little store.  As we enter, Freddie’s arms are now folded across his chest; I think he looks anxious. As we enter, the clerk, with a heavy accent, shouts something across the store, but I don’t pay attention. It’s Friday night and the place is full of customers getting gas, buying beer, and taking a chance on the lottery.

Freddie is even more uncomfortable, it’s now obvious. Again the clerk shouts, and I realize it’s Freddie that’s the target of his anger.

“You know you are not supposed to be in here,” he shouts through a thick Caribbean accent.  “Don’t you come in here trying to steal anything!

I’m shocked at this. It’s both unprofessional and rude, and I ask Freddie if we are okay in this place or if he wants to go someplace else.

“I’m okay,” he says as if he’s used to it all, and he quickly makes a beeline for what he wants.

Another employee steps up to Freddie and just stands there, watching his every move. Every time Freddie takes a step, this guy shadows him.

“Is everything okay, sir?,” I ask.

“Yep.” He doesn’t take his eyes off of Freddie.

“Is there a problem?”

“Not yet.” His gaze is still fixed on Freddie.

Now the clerk, finished with his latest customer, steps from behind the counter and shouts again, heading our way.  There are still customers in line. “You get out of here right now!,” he yells.  “You’re a piece of shit, and you don’t belong in here!”

All eyes in the store are now on us.

I’ve had enough. 

“Wait a second,” I say.  “This guy is my friend, and he is here with me.”

“I am not talking to you,” the clerk says, never meeting my gaze.  He looks past me.  To Freddie he says “I am talking to this piece of garbage here.”

Freddie tries to defend himself.

“Don’t talk to me,” the clerk says.  “Get away from here. Get out.”

I do not know why, but I am suddenly hurt, stung by the callous uncaring of this clerk. It feels like he hates me as much as he hates Freddie. It feels wrong. It feels personal.

“No,” I demand.  “You don’t talk to him.”  I lean into his field of view so he has to look at me.  “You talk to me.”  I am suddenly angrier than I think I should be, and I’ve now determined that I’m in charge. A fire has been lit within me, and I don’t know where it came from. Not yet.

“I’m buying some things, and all you need to do is ring them up.”

“He can wait outside,” the clerk insists.

“No.  That’s not what I said. We can both leave and buy nothing, or we can both stay and buy whatever my friend wants. Your choice. Either way, I’m responsible. You talk to me, not him.”

The clerk frowns at this, but to my surprise shrinks back behind the counter to address the customers waiting in line. “Hurry up,” he says.

Freddie seems to stand a little taller. Now I get it, I think. Did he really ask to come here so I would provide him some cover? The argument over for the moment, he now takes his time, going to the back of the store to open his noodles and add hot water from the coffee maker.  There’s a little defiance in him, some confidence he didn’t have before. Dignity. We’ve overstayed our welcome, but he seems to be enjoying the delay. I’m anxious to get out.

The clerk rings us up and I pay, being careful to use a credit card, keeping my cash hidden. The total bill is less than four dollars.

We get outside finally, and my friend and I wish Freddie well.  He’s holding two hot cups of noodles and doesn’t have a free hand to shake. “God bless you,” is the best I can offer.  His response is a sneer, an annoyed look that conveys he doesn’t have a whole lot of expectation for coming blessings. 

Having gotten what he wanted, he ducks between construction barrels, takes a turn behind an old building undergoing demolition, and scurries down an overgrown hill, disappearing into the night.  I realize then that I didn’t even get his name, and will have to make one up to share his story.

My friend and I walk along, mostly silent.  We shake our heads at the abject cruelty of the clerk, and discuss the pain Freddie must feel at being denied that most basic human need of acknowledgement. We part ways soon afterward.

Alone, I am still bothered, disturbed by the cruelty that life seems to have handed Freddie. I walk back outside alone, into the night, and look up at the lights in the lofty residences. The people who live up above me are as different from me as I am from Freddie, but we all have the same basic needs. He remains on my mind the rest of the evening, as I think about the pain he has experienced, both at his own hand and at the hands of others.

At 2:00am I awake with a start. It suddenly makes sense.

I saw the pain it caused Freddie to cease to exist, to be denied that most basic of human gifts, simple acknowledgement.

I watched as Freddie, in a store, was yelled at, silenced, and embarrassed. He was treated worse than anyone should deserve.

The tears roll down my cheeks as I realize why I am so deeply affected by him, why it feels so personal.

I think about my own story, the way my own bride has refused to acknowledge me. I think about how she, in a grocery store, shouted at me not to speak and to go away. I think about Freddie and I feel his lack of hope, and know this is something else we share. My whole body shakes as I sob into my pillow.

We are from two different worlds. We have two different stories. We could not be less alike.

And yet we share the same pain. Rejected.  Denied. Shut down. Cast off. We are unwanted.

I am Freddie too.

Good Times at the Big Show

It’s Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Championship Bowl Game Day, and I’m in the city of Atlanta, just a few blocks away from the stadium.  I grab a jacket, put some cash in my wallet, and hit the streets.

Outside, the only thing denser than the traffic is the air of excitement.  People are coming from every direction, side streets spilling out onto the throughways, everyone heading to ground zero for the big game.  They are all talking and singing and shouting and laughing.  I join in tentatively, and shortly am buoyed along by the teeming crowd.  Most have their cell phones recording every moment, and they are dressed in every conceivable way, the thinner they are, the tighter their clothing.  Big guys in loose jerseys, small girls in tight dresses or leggings. Sequins are plentiful on the ladies.

“Need tickets?,” I’m asked.  I decide to haggle a little to see what the going rate is to get into the game.  At the first offer of $2800, I say “I don’t want to waste your time.  That’s not in my price range.”  What it is, is the price range of a Yugo.

As we teem on towards CNN Center, I see a protest taking place.  Colin Kaepernick has been big news this week, and so I assume it’s political in nature.  Wrong.  The first sign I see reads “It’s Not Your Mother’s Penis.”  I have no idea what that means.  The group is protesting circumcision, and they claim that the barbaric process removes 16 functions.  Now I am baffled and a little self-conscious, because I can only think of two functions for a penis.  “What am I missing?,” I wonder. I have a Swiss Army knife with fewer functions.

Onward we teem, and I’m getting a little more comfortable with my teeming technique in this human wave of anticipation, just a few minutes before kickoff.  “There aren’t this many seats in that stadium,” I think.  All of these people can’t possibly have tickets.

“Need tickets?,” I’m asked again.  This time, the price is down to $2000.  I assume that the closer we get to game time, the lower the price will go.  $2000 is still too much.  Ten times.

A megaphone is blaring.  “… and all of you drug addicts, and you perverts, and you alcoholics, you’re going to be surprised on that day when the Lord tells you ‘I never knew you.”  There are a couple of groups of street preachers here.

“Wailing and gnashing of teeth await you, unless you repent,” another megaphone blasts.

It’s almost a competition to outdo one another with their condemnation, two teams in the Super Damnation Bowl.  Clearly, they believe that Jesus went from town to town with a microphone, criticizing everyone.  I watch for a little while as an older man first debates with one of them and then curses at them.  The preacher will only respond through his loud megaphone.  It reminds me of the dunking tank at the fair, where a clown taunts the public with amplified insults, but the only response he hears is the rubes who pay $5 for another three balls to throw. He wants to be heard — not necessarily listened to — and he again condemns the old man, this time for his language.  It is a middle-school playground argument.

There’s a young man here too with a piece of cardboard covered with black velvet.  On it, he has three soda bottle caps.  He is running a shell game with the crowd of young men circled around him.  There’s a lot of shouting and jeering as the latest victim ends up getting fooled.  Again.  Some things never change.  I can’t help but notice that both the sheep who can’t find the pea and the wolf who is fleecing them are having a lot more fun than the preachers.

The media says that Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Quarterback Tom Brady is the polarizing figure of this event, and there are merchants on both sides of the street to prove it.  “TOM F’ING BRADY” appears on the T-shirts being sold on one side of the street.  On the other side, in the same font and in the same colors, guys are selling “TOM BRADY SUCKS” T-shirts.  Entrepreneurship at its finest.

“Tickets?,” I’m asked yet again.  This time, the price is down to $1750.  I figure if I can wait until after the kickoff, I might be a buyer for something south of $200.

The stadium rises up in front of us, as we reach the end of the street.  It is brilliant and blue and beautiful, and through its windows the crowd can see Gladys Knight singing the national anthem on the big screen.  Suddenly, the air shakes and the crowd collectively looks up as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds scream by, right to left, leaving long contrails behind.  The crowd cheers! This is fun!

We stand there in the middle of the street, 20,000 of us without tickets and about a dozen who have too many.  To get inside, it currently takes both $1750 and a willingness to part with that much cold, hard cash. As far as I can tell, none of us here has both. The kickoff happens, and after seeing the first couple of plays on the big screen through the windows, the crowd, now without a purpose, begins to break up slowly.

I watch the street preachers a little more, and then begin to be drawn away slowly with the crowd.  The wave, having crashed against the rock, is now receding.

I come upon another circle of shouting men in the middle of the sidewalk.  This time, it’s the three card monty going on, same scam, same sheep, different wolf.  He notices me and asks me to find the red card.

“Nah, I’m okay,” I say.  “I’m just watching.”  He tells the man next to me to find the red card.  He picks the center one and is wrong.

“Come on, my man.  You pick the card,” he says to me.  The odds are 50/50.

“It’s the left one,” I say confidently, and he flips over the red card.

“You got a good eye; let’s try that again,” he says.  I have no idea how he controls the cards, but I’m not interested in being fleeced.

“I can’t play, but I like watching.”  Then I bluff, “I do have a good eye.  And you’ve got a pretty good technique.”

“Yeah, you right.  You can’t play,” he says.  I smile and move along.

I pass a man heading back toward the stadium.  “You got tickets?,” he asks.  “No, no tickets.”

“How many you need?”

“Just one,” I say.  It’s $1000.  Still too rich for my blood.

“I’m looking for a cheap one,” I admit.  “No more than $200.”

“Shhhh,” he hisses, and spins on his heels as he strides away.

“Yo, you need a ticket?,” I’m asked immediately afterward.  Most ticket scalpers have a look about them.  They’re hustlers.  They look a little slick and a little untrustworthy, sort of like used car salesmen.  By contrast, this one looks disheveled and a little nervous.  “Only $500.”

I’ve looked at half a dozen tickets tonight, felt the raised lettering, seen the Vince Lombardi trophy towering over the Mercedes Benz stadium in the background, the bright blue and red inks crisp and sharp.  This scalper holds his ticket low, showing me only the front.  The picture on the ticket’s image looks like a high school field lit up at night.  “Super Bowl” it says in murky black letters.  I’m confused, wondering if this guy was foolish enough to buy the fake ticket he is now trying to pass off to me, or if he’s foolish enough to make a fake ticket this bad, thinking someone will pay for it.  As I chuckle, I decline his offer and move on again, headed back towards home.

In front of me, I see a set of the street preachers.  As I walk along behind them, I strike up a conversation.

“What I’m wondering,” I ask, “is why you want people to fear God?”

He stops.  “Proverbs 1:7 says ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,'” he quotes.  “Do you know the Lord?,” he challenges me.

“I’m just thinking that if God made each of us as unique people, and He wants to know us, and He loves us so much that He sent his only son to die for us, that maybe he doesn’t want us to fear him so much as love him,” I say.

He doesn’t wait for me to finish.  He quotes Paul in Phillipians, saying we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  He moves on to Luke, quoting that God’s mercy is on those who fear him.  After about five verse quotes, he asks, “Now isn’t all of that true?”

“It is,” I respond.  “But it’s only half of the picture.  In most of those verses you quote, ‘fear’ is used in a form that connotes respect.  You’re not quoting anything about Jesus and his love of people, or his message that God loves us all.”

He doesn’t let me finish before he’s off again, drawing closer to me, quoting scripture right through my body.

“Now wait a second,” I ask.  “You keep interrupting me …”

“We’re having a dialogue here, a back and forth,” he interrupts yet again.

“Yes, we are,” I respond.  “But you have to let me forth before you come back.”

His companion enters the discussion.  “Let him make his point, Jack,” he says.

“I know his point already,” preacherman says.  “You just want to tickle the ears,” he tells me.

“I guess we are done here then,” I say.  “Good luck to you, brother.”  I’m tempted to shake the dirt off of my shoes as I move on with a smile.

I pass CNN center, where the earlier protest was happening.  There’s an iconic 10-foot high CNN logo sign in front of the building.  About four feet up, there’s a new hole in the sign, the shape of a fist.  Someone must have taken the protest personally.

I cut through Centennial Park, and run into another T-Shirt vendor.  This shirt lacks profanities, and shows the two teams playing the game.  Yes, I’ll take one for $20.

“I need an extra-large,” I say.  He has maybe four shirts with him.

“Okay, I got you covered,” he says.  He holds the shirt up in front of my chest, the way a mom does to test fit something on a boy who’s eight.  “That looks good,” he says.  He folds it in half and tosses it over my shoulder, looking for his payment.

I pull the shirt off my shoulder and look at its tag.  It doesn’t say XL.  “This is a medium.”

“Oh, my bad,” he lies.  “I guess I don’t have an extra large.  How about a medium?”

Yeah, that won’t fit.  He wants me to follow him up the street for the extra large shirts.  I do.  At his stash, he still has only mediums, but he tries to convince me that they run large and they will fit.  Suspicious, I wonder if there’s a box of medium t-shirts that fell off of a truck somewhere this afternoon.  I grin and move on again.

A homeless man sees me put my $20 back in my pocket, and suddenly is very interested in talking to me.  He walks along with me, telling me about his troubles.  “I’ve been volunteering at the homeless shelter,” I tell him.  “Have you been there?”  Yes, but he doesn’t like the way the place is run.  The homeless run the place he says; this is largely true, but it’s part of the program of building discipline and accountability.

He tells me he can get off of the street and have a garage apartment, but he’s coincidentally just $17 short of the $480 he needs for the rent, and an employer will give him a job when he rents the apartment, he says.  He’s a nice enough guy, but his story is fishy.  When we stop at a crosswalk, he steps behind me so the police officer directing traffic can’t see him.  His voice drops to a whisper.  Too late.  The officer shoos him off.  “Didn’t I tell you to stop panhandling here?”  The cop tells me that Atlanta has a lot of resources for the homeless, and the biggest problem is that people give them money, which keeps them on the streets and gives them cash to stay drug addicted.

I walk on alone now, the crowd around me having dispersed.  I take a back walkway past the aquarium and the Coca-Cola museum, and as I cross the street to my building, I look back over my shoulder towards the glow of the lights and the orbiting helicopters.

The most-watched show in the world was held here tonight.

The best show was the one outside, that everyone else missed.