I had been waiting at the bus stop for only a few minutes when I saw him crossing from the other side of the street. He was pushing a bag-cart, which he was using to help support himself. He stopped close to where I was standing.
Glancing at him, I was surprised to see that he was much younger than he appeared. He stood there for a while, and then, pulling out a crumpled pack, lit a cigarette.
Waiting for the bus was getting boring; so hoping to help pass the time more enjoyably, I tried to start a conversation. I had no idea what to say. Looking into his cart, I noticed a package of aluminum baking sheets. Half jokingly, I asked him what he was going to use them for.
For a moment, he stared at me with an awkward smile. Then he began to laugh - a strange staccato of guffaws, each sounding forced from him.
Now that I was looking at him closely, I noticed the horrendous condition of his mouth: it looked like every tooth in his head must have been in some advanced stage of decay - there was nothing but blackness.
I turned my head away momentarily. The sight of his ruined teeth disgusted me. I wondered if he was going to say anything more. He looked over at me again, and seeing that I was still watching him, started to talk, the words coming out disjointedly, like his laughing fit had sounded.
"What! Why? Why...you...ask...eh? What!"
I didn't know what to say. I was beginning to wish that I hadn't opened my mouth. I tried to explain to him that it was a stupid question, and that I was just trying to be friendly. He looked at me with an amused grin, and then continued to speak.
"You...Irish?" And then added, "But...not...mouth. Funny!"
I replied that he was right, and thinking that I understood the second part of his statement, I told him that my mother was French. He seemed to be satisfied with this last assertion, and since I didn't say anything more, continued smoking, the conversation having come to an end.
I glanced over to see what he was doing. He had lit another cigarette. I reached into my pocket to get my pack, but then remembered that I had smoked my last one.
I looked at my watch to see how much time I had before the bus arrived. Seeing that there was still another ten minutes, I decided to run across the street to get another pack. I didn't have any cash with me, but there was an ATM inside the store. Thinking of the guy's poor state, I withdrew enough money so that I could get my cigarettes and give him twenty dollars.
He was still there when I got back. Evidently, we were waiting for the same bus. He was just finishing the cigarette that he had lit when I had left and was now using it to light another one. I stood next to him without saying anything. I was thinking of a way to offer him the money. Then I heard him speak.
"Stroke. Hard...to...talk. You...understand. Smoke...crack...long."
That certainly explained a lot about him. He told me that he was only thirty years old when he had the stroke, but added that he had been a crack smoker for the better part of his life.
Ridiculously, I asked him if he had stopped smoking crack. He grinned and gave me a look as if to ask me how would it be still possible for him to smoke crack. Then he added something else.
I had already noticed.
I pondered how strange it was to see this fairly young man in such bad shape. There were people you saw on the street who might look as bad as he did, but then it was usually an older man at the end of a long battle with alcohol. Strangely, though, he was relaxed; moreover, he was content to carry on a conversation with me, a stranger, about very personal details of his life.
I thought about how unlike he was the public's portrayal of a typical drug addict. He had, at least in my opinion, shown himself to be a perceptive and intelligent person who had unfortunately suffered greatly by his own hand, and who was now in a very difficult situation.
The bus arrived and stopped in front of us. He moved to get on. The driver, seeing his difficulty to board, lowered the air suspension.
Once on the ramp, the man had to turn himself around so that he could reach down for his cart. It was just out of his reach, so I pushed it forward. He lifted it up, and then made his way down the aisle to take a seat. I followed and took a seat next to him. We were the only passengers on the bus.
The bus began to move, and we settled into our seats. He looked over to ask me a question.
"You...drinker? Eh? You...like...whisky...eh? Irish...right?"
I answered that I was but that I had quit, and that I had once enjoyed a glass of whiskey. He asked me when it was that I had quit, and when I told him that it was two days ago, he laughed.
He relaxed in his seat, putting his arm up to rest on the back of the seat next to him, and then didn't say anything for a while. I heard him laugh, and asked him why he was laughing. He told me that his background was also Irish, and to prove it, he showed me the large shamrock tattooed on his calf.
I could see that my stop was coming up, so I reached into my pocket to get the bill I had planned to give him. I tried passing it over to him, but when he saw what I was trying to do, he started laughing again.
I was a fool to feel sorry for him, and an even greater fool for then trying to justify myself - I argued that he must have needs that he couldn't take care of since he was clearly unable to work, and so was deserving of some charity. I fell flat on my face. I did not understand him at all.
The bus was stopping, I was getting up to go. He reached out his hand to shake mine, but then I had to leave. I got off the bus and walked the rest of the way home, feeling lonely.