This time The Whole Written Caboodle welcomes a new voice to blogging. Bruce Campbell joins with this post about his experience one cold December day about 20 years ago when he worked in downtown Washington, DC.
If the last name is similar to mine, it is because I stole mine from him, about 34 years ago. And did I mention that we met in a creative writing class when we were both adults and the oldest two people in class? 😊
Upon Visiting the Café Midi, DuPont Circle,
’Long About the Turn of the Last Century
There’s a strange etiquette among the beggars on the streets of Washington, DC. They do not, as a rule, accost passersby, but sit with their cups held out, obvious but not obtrusive. And, if you pass them again on your way back, having already donated, most will politely look away so that you won’t feel obliged to give a second time.
When I worked in the city, I saw them frequently – at least half a dozen along my path on any trip out of the office. I felt sometimes that I should say something more than whatever politeness passed my lips as I dropped a dollar in the cup. I wondered about them – who they were, who they had been – about the small and the large experiences that had made up their lives. But it seemed too weird – too intrusive on my part, really – to sit down beside them and ask them about themselves; the situation did not lend itself to conversation. So I, too, observed what seemed to be the etiquette and did not enquire.
One day in mid-December I was on my way to lunch at a café whose chief attractions, for me, were that I could dine cheaply (half a baguette and a Coke) and be allowed to sit and read unhurried in relative quiet until I was ready to go – the only place I knew downtown that fit such a description. Along the way, I saw a new face. He sat on the sidewalk, leaning against a storefront, wrapped in a heavy wool blanket. I reached in my pocket as I approached. But my hand stayed in my pocket, and I walked past.
In the face of poverty, we all want to do something practical, if we do anything at all. We want to see each dollar going as far as possible to meet the very real practical needs. But, just that day, I wondered, as I looked at that haggard face – who dispenses delight? When was the last time anyone, himself included, spent a nickel on this fellow that didn’t need to be spent?
I walked the few remaining steps to the café and went inside. On two or three occasions I had indulged myself in what I had found to be the absolute best brownies I had ever tasted – big and rich and gooey, with a little bit of mocha icing drizzled on top, a light dusting of powdered sugar. You get the picture. They were a little pricey, so I made them a rare treat. I left the café with a brownie in a little white bag. I felt a bit of a fool, really. The guy could probably have better used the three bucks and change I’d just spent.
As I walked by, I handed him the bag, nodded hello to his puzzled look, and kept on walking. When I stopped to look back, he was opening the bag, and I was near enough to see forty years fall from his face. It was a huge smile, the smile of a child on Christmas morning.
That’s who he had been.
Once upon a time, whatever our backgrounds and in whatever form it came, we’ve all been children on Christmas morning. And, once in a while, we get to be again.