As he left the restaurant, stomach full, mouth minty, Jay Addison savored the pleasant buzz of a two-martini lunch. He probably shouldn’t have had a glass of Merlot after the second martini, but who can refuse when a client is buying? Besides, since it was Friday, he could escape work at 3 p.m. Even the advertising business slowed in San Francisco on beautiful autumn days.
Several blocks down Powell Street, at Market, a long line of tourists snaked around a turnstile, waiting patiently to board cable cars that would click-clack their way to Fisherman’s Wharf.
“Yip! Yip!” Across the intersection, a small brown and white dog strained on a piece of rope at the feet of a homeless person. Addison shook his head. Dogs! Cats! Panhandlers played the sympathy game to the hilt. He had even seen a woman with a white rabbit once.
He looked over, through, and past the bodies sprawled on the pavement. Some of the homeless dozed, drunk or high; others brandished plastic cups and begged half-heartedly, anticipating rejection. A few were belligerent when ignored, subjecting passers-by to a brief stream of profanity.
His eyes drifted from dog to owner. He halted, stunned. No! It couldn’t be …no… not Les Wylie! The man, slumped against a building, wore a tattered fatigue jacket, jeans with holes, and scuffed boots. He was unshaven, cheeks collapsed into a deeply lined face. Tufts of hair stuck out from under a faded 49ers cap. He jerked the rope and the dog returned and licked a hand.
Addison turned away, fearful of being caught staring. Then he sneaked a glance back. It was Les Wylie! They had played on the reserve basketball team in 11th grade at Bishop O’Hearn High School, shared lunches, swapped geometry and history homework. His sister Sara had dated Wylie. Wylie! He had been at the 10th reunion of the class of 1998. Addison hadn’t talked to him, but someone had mentioned that Wylie had become a salesman, office equipment or something. How could he have sunk to this?
Addison gnawed his lower lip. What should he do? Pretend he didn’t see him? Stop and give him money? What if Wylie wanted to talk… to relive old times? What if–heaven forbid–he asked Addison to take him home for a shower and a warm meal and a night in a soft bed? What would Addison’s wife say? His stomach churned and a sour taste filled his mouth. The light changed but he hung back, sheltering in a shadowed doorway.
Addison thought of himself as a kind and generous person. He donated money to the United Crusade. Why he had just mailed a check to a disaster fund in Thailand. Or was it the Sudan?
He became angry, first for feeling guilty because he had an expensive suit, a full stomach, and money in his wallet. And then his anger shifted to Wylie, the cause of his guilt. How could he flaunt his misfortune in public this way? Had the man no shame?
And what about the city’s responsibilities to its tax-paying citizens? The homeless were everywhere, clogging the sidewalks and harassing people. Couldn’t they at least keep them out of the downtown area during the day? And what must visitors to the city think? He’d bet they hadn’t planned on this exposure to local color as part of their vacations.
Wylie glanced his way. Addison froze, but the unfocused gaze drifted over him. He pushed his bitter feelings aside and considered what to do. Should he make a hurried pass and drop money in Wylie’s cup? What if Wylie glanced up and recognized him?
Perhaps he should cross the street and walk down the other side. No, he wouldn’t do that. Addison put on sunglasses and squared his shoulders. He crossed the intersection and walked briskly down the littered sidewalk, eyes focused on an invisible concrete horizon. As he neared the slumped figure of his former classmate, Addison glanced down quickly and then averted his eyes. The dog raised its head but Wylie’s eyes were closed.
At Market Street, Addison’s irritation gave way to relief as the escalator carried him away from the busy intersection to the cool refuge of the subway platform. He hoped he’d find a homeless person hustling spare change or selling street sheets, the homeless newspapers. If so, he would give the person $1… No, make that $2. He felt better.