"Can I borrow 50¢, please?"

There's one Berkeley bum who uses that line a lot. Always he says please, and puts the tiniest extra emphasis on 'borrow', as if anyone believes it's a loan.

Usually I'm stingy and cheap, but a few times I've said yeah and handed him a few quarters.

And there he was again, standing at the corner in front of Walgreens. Across the parking lot I could hear him saying his familiar line to an old couple, and they ignored him of course, and walked into the store.

I wasn't in a good mood, and had already decided I wasn't giving that bum the 50¢ I knew he'd be asking for. Why I'd ever given him anything is a mystery, but he wears a fraction of a smile and a hopeful look and sometimes it's cracked my uncaring urban armor.

Not today, though. I steeled my defenses. He wasn't getting a dime out of me. I only had four dollars in my wallet, barely enough for the groceries I needed, and anyway, I am poor, damn it.

As I approached the store's door, the bum pulled his hand out of his pocket, the literal enactment of hoping for a handout. I looked the other way and waited for the words, but they were what I'd expected.

"This is for you, mister," he said, and I noticed there were two dollar bills in his hand. 

"For me?" I asked, trying to figure out what scam he was pulling.

"Yeah, for helping me out when I needed it, man. Four times you've given me 50¢."

Wordless, I gradually grokked that he was repaying the 'loans'. Does this guy keep a ledger? 

It's probably a calculated part of his routine, and I'm supposed to refuse the two dollars. Like I said, though, I'm poor. And not proud. I needed the money almost as much as he did, so I took the cash, stuffed it into my pocket and added, "Thanks."

He'd probably complain, I thought. His whole ploy was supposed to get money out of me, right?

But instead he said, "Don't be thanking me," either sincerely or as a well-delivered part of the pitch. "I be thanking you, for helping when I was broke."

Past tense? Like, you aren't broke now? 

But I didn't say anything, only nodded, and walked into the store. With the extra two bucks, I treated myself to a can of Nine Lives and a small jar of mayonnaise, in addition to the ramen and cheap bread I'd come for. Yeah, I'd be eating good tonight.

The bum was still there when I came out, so I handed him two quarters. Call it a karma investment. And I smiled at him, and it felt like a genuine smile.

From Pathetic Life #22
Thursday, March 14, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

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