Coffee with the king

This is a story about a bum on the street who happened to be a poet. I say bum with as much endearment as you might say brother. That’s what he called himself. Homed people always go and worry about what you’re supposed to call homeless folk but I don’t know why. It’s not what you term or say to somebody, it’s how you say it – that is, if you talk to them at all. Anyways, I refer to my friend as the bum because he never told me his name, it’s as simple as that. I would introduce him merely as my friend, but then I have plenty of other friends I could be talking about. I sadly don’t have another bum friend, so at least this way you know who I mean, right?

We had a lot in common, me and him, but not as much as I would have hoped. For a start, I have running water, central heating, he didn’t. On the other hand, he travelled a lot, I didn’t. But most importantly, as it turned out, we were both writers. Him more than me, I must say.

Let me start with a little about myself before we get to the real stuff, the real character of my story. As I already told you, I’m a writer. But a journalist type to be more specific. Sorry to disappoint. I only had a degree under my belt a few years when I struck lucky in the city, a big-deal-paper around here giving me a chance. Making coffee that kinda joke. Well, it was all I needed… I’d been telling everybody that for years. My words did the rest. A couple of hot pieces and I found myself with a desk. I always wanted a desk. Now, I see my name in the paper every morning. Jack Wildman. Well, I would do if I actually read the paper, it depresses me in truth.

How does this hack meet a bum? Same way anybody else would: stop for a chat. It was a Tuesday morning. Might not have been precisely Tuesday but near enough, maybe a Wednesday actually. I was going for my usual coffee: black with no sugar just like my friend Steven, at this buzzing little house I walk by everyday. See, gone were the days I was making the coffee. I had climbed the rungs of the city ladder. (I wasn’t buying for anyone else back at the office either.) Anyways, my soon to be friend, was just sitting outside, minding his own business. I figured that if a bum had chosen to mind his own business right outside of a coffeehouse, the chances were he probably liked his coffee. So I asked him that and he said yeah. I went inside and bought two black coffees, brought him back plenty of sugar too just in case.

He thanked me most graciously. And I remember what he asked me next. He asked me the time. I thought to myself it curious that a bum should care for the time. Here I am with work to be late for and he’s the one counting the minutes! I also found it real funny that he asked me the time. And I explained to him why. You see, the only occasion when two strangers interact in the street is when somebody wants to know the time. My friend chuckled to himself at that. Told me that I spoke the truth. He wasn’t going to offer, so I asked if I might sit down with him. He was only too happy to budge along, even extended me some of his blanket. He was a generous host.

I thought about asking him how his day was going. But then I figured you can’t really ask a bum that. I wondered if I might ask about his taste in music or his favourite restaurant. Again, stupid questions. The great thing about chatting to a bum is that you can only ask proper questions. To no other new friend could you enquire as openly about their whole damn life story, and hell, would no other new friend have half as fascinating an answer. I was bloody late for work that day I can tell you.

See, we just sat there watching the world go by. It was a strange perspective, sitting down. Makes you feel small in the world but also kind of superior. Everybody was rushing around. At that eye-level you really notice the briefcases swinging, suits off to their big city jobs, like I should have been. You notice the skirts too but my friend was real polite, I didn’t catch him looking. People sure look at you funny when you’re hanging out with a bum. My friend mentioned this himself actually. He said that usually they looked without really looking. Avoiding glances. But now that he had company, my company, there were more curious looks. Curious ain’t a bad thing, but it bothered it did me when they stared.

The other interesting thing about sitting there was my friend had a hat for collecting coins. It was a nice hat actually, real old and tatty – a city hipster would have approved; new it was probably worth more than the coins he had in it. After a few people had tossed a couple pieces, I decided I would start playing a game. Checking out the folks who could spare some change, I began comparing their mannerisms with the amount they gave to my friend. Two examples will make my point clear enough. One time there was this typical suit, and I swear to god he didn’t even look at us, you’d think he’d leant down for a second to lace up his shoe! But in that swift movement he’d dropped a twenty into the hat. We looked up to thank him but he was gone. My friend was proper chuffed, kept fingering the note, just checking to see if it was real I suppose. But I couldn’t get over how strange the thing was, real generous sure, but also, well, rude.

Another example will explain it to you. There was a middle-aged lady who came over from the newsagents across the road. Out of nowhere she was telling us ‘good morning’ and handing us a bottle of water each. She’d just bought them. Well I said ‘good morning’ back, and so did my friend, and we thanked her most kindly. I thought it funny but sweet that she had bought me one too. As she was fumbling with her purse, I noticed her tuck a newly purchased lottery ticket away. Hastily, like she was embarrassed about it. Boy, did I wish her lucky with all my heart. I really did. If ever I wanted somebody to win, I wanted water-bottle lady to. After some awkward small talk (see it doesn’t work with bums) she was on her way. But not before slipping two shinnies into my friend’s hat. Ten times more generous than the suit that lady.

After an hour or so, my friend picked up the hat, shaking it. There was a real satisfying rattle, music to his ears you could see from his face. Next he said a funny thing to hear on the street. He said it was ‘his round’. I imagined the two of us sitting like work colleagues at the bar, chatting about the football over cold pints. Coffee, he meant. I beamed. Black with no sugar like my friend Steven, I told him. He came back ten minutes later, there had been a queue apparently, but the lady serving was real nice, she had given us some free cookies on the house. Gracious as ever, he split the packet with me. As that peaceful morning passed, the street, our street, was quietening down. There was less to watch and less to rattle in the hat. We got to talking instead.

That was when I learnt my friend was a writer. In fact, a poet, and it was most interesting but also kind of sad why. He told me how he often found it difficult to write – I wanted to jump in, there and then, explain my own suffering with writer’s bloc, empathise, but I didn’t. I didn’t because he went on to say that he found it difficult to write because he hadn’t a pen and pad very often. Imagine that. This struck me, it really did. I could see his dilemma clear as day though: there was food and drink to buy after all. He explained that he wrote poetry because it was short, he could compose pieces and remember bits in his head, until he could find some scrap paper, or save up for a proper pad. My friend was a damn practical genius, as well as a bloody great poet I was about to find out.

I told him with great embarrassment that I was a writer too. His eyes lit up at that. But something in them faded when I explained: the journalist kind. Not everybody could be a coffee-drinking poet bum I thought. He was awful polite about it though, that was his way. He said that he would look out for my name (Jack Wildman I had told him) in the papers that he sometimes picked out from bins. I told him that he’d be better off leaving them in there. It strikes me now that I was an awful fool not to ask his name at that very appropriate moment. He probably thought me rude having not as well. There is something sure charming though about the anonymous ‘coffeehouse poet bum’. I like to imagine now that it is written on the cover of a huge volume of poetry sold in all good bookstores.

The sad thing about my story, and I feel real bad about letting you down like this I do, is that I can’t share my friend’s masterpieces with you. I would love to, I really would. The trouble is, he hadn’t any of them written down on him, and I hadn’t the damn foresight to scribble them out while he was telling them from memory. In truth, I wouldn’t have wanted the distraction. I can tell you that my friend spoke the most wonderful things. He entertained me for another hour easy, spewing verses on just about everything. There was one about a beautiful girl who used to smile at him with sad eyes. Another about a loyal old dog, too lazy to walk. One for every passerby on the street too, the suit and the water-bottle lady included. Even one about his little hat, about how it rattled. And of course another about coffee. An ode to coffee. I chimed in for that one: black with no sugar like my friend Steven!

I wondered whether he was making it all up there and then, spontaneous, really I did.

A finer morning was never spent. I shook my friend’s hand and rose from that warm blanket a new man. I had just enjoyed my coffee with the king of the whole street. In fact, I walked away backwards, bowing like a madman, giving the most respectful of royal subject waves. He chuckled so hard I could still hear him, long out of sight. I still do. The sad thing is I never saw my poet friend again. I like to think he’s on tour now. Touring all the coffeehouses of the city, sitting and thinking up his wonderful verse. He’s free you see. Moves from place to place. Me? Well I stick with the same old coffeehouse down the street. Pop there every morning on my way to work. I think about not going sometimes. In my head, I write this little note that I’m going to leave on my desk one day:

‘Gone to meet a friend for coffee, different house for a change.’

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4 comments

  1. I just finished reading it for a third time. I love it. “Black with no sugar like my friend Steven.” I like how that line repeats itself. The imagery was in my head all morning, since I read it the first time last night.

      1. I try to read everything at least two or three times. I believe that there is a surface tension in all writing, and the only way to break that surface tension and really get into the water of it is to sit there long enough. It’s kind of like how something (a leaf, twig, cobweb) will fall on a lake’s surface and float there for minutes or hours until the water below it saturates it and pulls it in. When something is only read once, I feel the understanding and enjoyment of it will be equally shallow.

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