At first I thought he was another scenester hanging out on the sidewalk–a sidewalk in an edgy, hip neighborhood proffering artisanal this and sustainable that, frequented by pale, tatted, raven-haired artistes willing to live in paint-peeling single apartments in order to afford a $6 espresso from the free trade java joint.
Atticus and I had no business cavorting anywhere this groovy. We’re too old and too conventional. But we were pretending we weren’t as we strolled down the sidewalk, post-Thai Massage, to the French bistro, passing on our way a middle-aged white guy looking all bohemian in baggy green pants, red espadrilles, and a smock of a white top. He held a sign in front of him. I figured he was casually flaunting a piece of art he had just procured from a nearby gallery.
Until I got close enough to read the sign, which said:
Out of Work Writer. Hungry.
I gawked as we passed by, craning my neck to see if he was muttering to the air, or had an empty bottle of Jack Daniels sticking out of his pocket. But no. He looked like a regular guy. A guy about our age. The kind of guy one might expect to see dining on Steak Frites and a robust Cabernet, but who, in fact, was begging for change.
Atticus and I exchanged desperate glances: there’s double-digit unemployment in our state! and will that ever be us?!
We had been strolling in and out of shops, admiring Danish modern furniture, buttery leather shoulder-bags, and artfully arranged cacti arrangments nestled in environmentally-correct pots. But even window-shopping felt blasphemous now, so we turned around and headed to the bistro.
We passed Hungry Out of Work Writer again and I looked at him a second time, scanning for psychosis or other signs to assure me that his fate could never be ours. He didn’t look crazy, though a little dazed, a little not-quite-there, as I’m sure he was wishing he wasn’t.
I could have slipped him a couple bucks, but I didn’t. I walked right on by, keeping a cool existential distance between us. If I pretend you’re not there, then the sky isn’t really falling. The middle-class isn’t really sliding into the abyss. Smart, determined people will eventually find employment, even if they’re over forty. The housing market will recover, we won’t lose our jobs, or our health insurance, and we’ll be able to take an occasional trip to Hawaii.
My Steak Frites appeared practically oozing blood, so I sent it back to be made edible. The bistro, it turned out, was less about the food and more about the experience. Sipping Cabernet on an empty stomach made me woozy. My eyes wandered around the dimly lit outdoor patio, my thoughts pinging off people around us.
The slinky hostess in a diaphanous, peek-a-boo white shift, doing more preening than hostessing. Once I was that young and that oblivious.
The older couple, fat and happy, still with lots to talk about over their filet mignon. Will we ever be able to retire?
The trio of 20something young bucks, heads together, bursting with boundless ambition and testosterone, murmuring plans for–what? The next Facebook, Oscar-winning screenplay, or break-out actor’s role? Oh, to be sure there are infinite bites of the apple, should years of pursuing a dream yield no fruit.
Was this what had happened to Hungry Out of Work Writer? Had he spent his youth at tables like this? First bouyed by movie producers. Later, still hopeful, hunched over a laptop with a co-writer at Starbucks. Then alone in a room, staring at a blank screen. And finally, when the ideas and money ran dry, when friends and relatives stopped returning calls, when the Starbucks he used to frequent turned him down for a job, he staked his turf on a sidewalk, begging for the comfort of strangers.
During my first marriage, I had the luxury of being a freelance writer, an avocation I had to deep-six in lieu of a steady-paycheck day job when I got divorced. I still fantasize about making enough dough from writing to quit my job. But even if I did manage to sell a book which gets developed into a Lifetime movie, or even a TV series (cue paroxyms of riotous laughter) I can’t imagine chucking the salary, the health insurance, and the retirement plan.
My Steak Frites reappeared, overcooked. Atticus and I deconstructed a variety of things: our late afternoon Thai massages, all that Ryan Gosling can do with his eyes, the pros and cons of our new self-cleaning cat litter box.
We deftly skirted topics that would spike our blood pressure: the new foreclosure on our street, the report that within days of arriving at his new boarding school, Luca was asking peers how to sneak drugs on campus, the bruising Atticus’s business has suffered from our state’s economy.
Heading back to Atticus’s midlife sports car, I reached into my purse for my wallet. I pushed through a cluster of Saturday night revelers, looking for the spot on the sidewalk where Hungry Out of Work Writer had been.
But he was gone. Maybe someone had given him money for a nice Steak Frites.