delicacies

I didn't see him at first. Staring down at my phone, Googling a scene from Othello that an IG friend had referenced, listening to The Helio Sequence with my headphones on (big, puffy ones, that block out the world). Walking through Pershing Square on my way to my favorite local small grocery because I was craving delicacies for dinner - prosciutto, burrata, maybe some balsamic jelly.

But suddenly there he was in front of me, pleading a case I wouldn't hear until I yanked my headphones off, which I did, stuffing my phone in my back pocket. He apologized for startling me, taking a step back and putting his arms up defensively. "I don't want to scare anybody, I just need some help, I'm here from out of town and--"

"I have no cash," I interrupted, truthfully. Four words I've said on an almost daily basis in the four years I've lived downtown. But rather than turn away abruptly as most do - as I've grown used to them doing, both of us moving on as if nothing significant has happened, as if the four words I've spoken explain or excuse the enormous gulf of privilege across which I'm speaking them - he just sort of sank into himself, where he stood. Crestfallen doesn't feel like the right word. Crestfallen is a Harry Potter character getting sorted into Ravenclaw House, when he was hoping for Gryffindor. This boy was defeated. Resigned. And something about his resignation was familiar to me. I found myself saying more.

"I only have a debit card, but can I buy you a sandwich or something? Are you hungry? Do you want--" He sprang into life again.

"Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, that would be amazing. Really? That would be amazing. I'm so hungry. I haven't eaten all day and that's just...can I hug you? Is that okay? I'm just, thank you so much..." He threw his arms around me like we were reunited lovers at the airport.

I don't know how old he was. I've reached the age where anyone younger than twenty-five looks like a teenager to me, so it's hard to say. He had blond hair and blue eyes and filthy clothing, and I believed the story he started to tell me as we walked across the street to Subway. Details spilled out more quickly than I could keep track, but I got the gist. Left home about a month ago. Cincinnati. Planned on staying with friends in LA. Lisa and Brittany, a couple. Hit a snag when Brittany found out he used to date Lisa. Kicked out. Figured he'd be better off downtown than Hollywood. Waiting for a friend driving down from NorCal to pick him up and take him back home.

He lit a cigarette, which he had to immediately extinguish, since we'd reached the door. He tamped it against the wall, apologizing. "I should have waited, that was stupid, I'm sorry." As we stepped into the restaurant, fast food fluorescence illuminated what I hadn't noticed outside: the kid was high. He couldn't stay still. His fingers flitted about like caged butterflies, and he danced back and forth on the balls of his feet. I glanced around nervously, but we were alone save for a sole diner at a table in the corner, and the employee who spoke to my companion with a gentleness that I was grateful for. Meanwhile, I listened to nonstop chatter, fueled by I don't know what drug.

"What do you like to get? I take my Subway very seriously, haha. What did you say your name was? Ellie. Ellie, I'll never forget this. Wow, you are a good person. Can I have a footlong Italian? Extra pickles, please. Yeah, that's great. And could you just give me one good line of that Southwestern sauce? Oh that's perfect, thank you so much. Wow, I just can't tell you how much I appreciate this. That looks so good, I'm so hungry--"

He darted away from the counter to fill his soda cup, and when he came back I asked if he'd like anything else. "Do you want to get a couple bags of chips or anything, for later? Some cookies or something?" And it was the way he looked at me, when I asked this, that made me realize what was familiar. I was standing next to my older brother. I was buying my older brother a meal. The one (and only) that I haven't seen in years. The homeless drifter, the addict, the ex-con, the slightly blacker sheep than myself. His same, sad mixture of dejection and shocked indebtedness, when someone did something nice for him. And I wondered whether under this boy's exterior there was any of my brother's same, sad mixture of deep despair and dangerous anger. I wondered what combination of circumstance, bad luck, and bad decision making had landed him where he was today.

Not that it mattered. In either case.

We said goodbye and exited through different doors, and when I walked back through the park a little while later, a paper bag full of organic vegetables and artisanal cheese crooked in my arm, he wasn't in the same place that he'd been before.