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.