The Business Of Begging

On a chilly Tuesday morning in November, Ryan startled awake as his apartment door slammed shut. Rubbing the sleep from his steely gray eyes, he lifted his head from the flattened pillow. Quality rest seemed difficult to come by since beginning his new job three months earlier, but nevertheless, he pretended for seven hours each night. Ryan stumbled a few steps from his box of a bedroom to the kitchenette, directly across from the door that inconsiderately stirred him before his alarm clock. Glancing toward the counter, he noticed a scribbled pastel yellow note next to a full, steaming pot of coffee: “Left for SanFran in search of my muse. Peace be with you.” Ah shit, Ryan thought. Leave it to this guy to announce his exit on a Post-It note.

Living with Phoenix, his artist roommate, for the past six months proved to be quite a unique experience. In the summertime, he turned their living room into a stray animal nursery, despite the fact that the building maintained a strict, no-pets-allowed policy. Autumn brought on his nude oil painting phase, replacing the squirrels and mangy cats with bare-skinned bodies posed on the two wooden barstools from the kitchenette. But this time, as the winter season approached, Phoenix sought inspiration near rust-colored cables of steel draped above a bay of beautiful blue water where the average November temperature did not drop below 50 degrees. Ryan slid past the apartment’s narrow bathroom and opened his roommate’s bedroom door to find the walls barren and the floor empty.

He grumbled to himself as he got ready for work: squeezing into the bathroom shower stall, shaving over the kitchenette sink where he took advantage of considerably more elbow room, dressing in his three-piece charcoal gray suit, and hurrying out the door with his travel mug full of his former roommate’s final contribution. His mind paced alongside his feet down E. 15th St., over a few blocks to the Union Square/14th Street subway station, and onto his 7:36 a.m. downtown-bound 4 train to Wall Street. Not today, he mumbled, not today. While he may have recently joined one of the most prestigious New York law firms as an attorney, his salary surely did not reflect it. He could barely manage splitting the apartment rent with Phoenix, let alone cover it entirely now that he resided just shy of 3,000 miles away. Walking through the revolving doors and sneaking through the elevator’s closing mouth, Ryan pressed “11” and waited for his day of grunt work laced with apartment concerns to begin.

Around 10:30 a.m., Ryan forfeited his 5-minute coffee break with his team of attorneys to design and print two dozen copies of a flyer advertising his newly available room for rent. He pulled a few shoddy photographs from his smartphone that he took the day he moved into the apartment, and typed a few detailed lines about the rental below them. The flyers were obviously the work of an amateur, but they would have to do. He needed to find someone to split the rent with him as soon as possible. As he walked home from the subway station later that evening, Ryan posted the flyers along 15th Street wherever he could find available space.  He crawled into his rumpled bed a few hours later and attempted to fluff his lifeless pillow. Preparing for yet another night of restless sleep, Ryan prayed silently to the god he did not believe in that someone would respond to his flyer before the next month’s rent was due.

Forty-eight hours later, Ryan schlepped his way home from yet another exhausting day at the office. The light at the end of the tunnel chanting, “You will love your job eventually,” dwindled by the day, and he did not know how much longer he could take it. Only one thing could manage to raise his spirits, albeit marginally: Chinese food. Ryan continued past his apartment and his grabbed take-out dinner from Dang Lai Palace on Third Avenue, ready to eat his feelings of anxiety in the forms of fried pork dumplings and beef lo mein. Within minutes, he found himself splayed on his living room couch, shoes tossed to the side and tie knot loosened, gorging on his favorite Chinese food in the Gramercy neighborhood. But before he could dig into his lo mein, the apartment buzzer sounded.

Jumping up with irritation and wiping soy sauce drippings from his chin, he called through the crackling speaker box, “Who is it?!”

“Hey man, the name’s Charlie,” a strange man responded in a deep, mellow voice. “I saw your flyer today. Is the space still available?

“Man that was fast,” Ryan muttered.

“What?” Charlie called.

“Uhh, sure, come on up,” he said, unlocking the building’s main entrance three floors below.

Ryan pressed his ear lightly to the door, listening as Charlie’s footsteps on the staircase moved closer and closer. The moment the doorbell rang, he peeked through the foggy door viewer to scope out his new potential roommate before turning the deadbolt. Charlie stood in the doorway, clad in dark blue jeans, an obscure concert t-shirt and a half-smile. Holding a tattered black backpack in his left hand and a surplus army green canvas guitar case in his right, he looked up at Ryan.

“Hey man, how’s it goin’?” Charlie spoke first.

“I’m doing well, thanks. I’m glad you saw my flyer,” said Ryan. “Come on inside.”

The two men walked three steps into the kitchenette and exchanged curious glances. Ryan gestured down the narrow hallway to the empty bedroom, and Charlie wandered nonchalantly past his extended hand toward the door. Stepping inside, Charlie approached the room’s window with a view of the fire escape, peered into the dent in the wall that sufficed as a closet, and looked back at Ryan who remained in the doorway. Both men held plain stares.

“So here’s the deal,” Ryan said bluntly, annoyed that his untouched lo mein was getting colder by the minute. “My last roommate moved out rather unexpectedly, and I need to rent this room without going through the hassle of adjusting the lease. If you don’t mind paying your half of the rent in cash, I’ll take care of the rest. We can split utilities accordingly. Whattaya say?”

With one more quick scope of the room, Charlie asked, “How much is the rent?”

“$1,300 per month per person.”

“Ouch. All of that for this?” Charlie asked, gesturing at the outdated and cramped living space.

“Unfortunately. It’s Gramercy Park. Whattaya expect?” Ryan huffed.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, man.” Charlie nodded. “Ok cool, no problem. I can handle that. When can I move in?”

Ryan paused and thought for a moment. Charlie was only the first person to show an interest in the room. Would it be wise of him to go ahead and seal the deal? He did not even know where this man came from or what he did for a living. However, he did know that his money was green, and he needed that half of the rent paid within the next week.

“Umm, as soon as you’d like I guess,” Ryan said.

“Sweet, glad this worked out, man,” Charlie smiled and reached out for a confirming handshake.

“Yeah, me too, me too,” Ryan grabbed his hand. “Oh by the way, do you mind me asking what you do for a living?”

“Uhh I’m a musician,” Charlie said, lightly tapping the top of his guitar case.

Soon after the two men signed their verbal roommate contract, Charlie disappeared and returned a few hours later with two duffel bags and an envelope filled with his first month’s rent. The two went their separate ways for the evening, hidden behind their bedroom walls at the opposite ends of the apartment.

Months passed with little chitchat between the new roommates. Ryan managed to greet Charlie every morning on his way to the bathroom as he slipped past him with his weathered backpack and guitar case toward the front door. Charlie returned to the apartment around 11 p.m. each night after Ryan began his latest episode of restless tossing and turning. Attempting to fill in the gaps in his roommate’s daily timeline, Ryan began inventing details about Charlie’s life and how he spent his days. In several mental video reels, he provided lunchtime entertainment at various hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants in the Lower East Side. Other times he traveled uptown to audition for top tier recording labels. The more Ryan thought about it, the more it bothered him that he never actually heard Charlie play one chord or sing one note in the apartment. Musicians practice all the time, don’t they? Whatever, he thought, physically shaking the thoughts from his head. Despite the fact that Charlie was practically invisible, he kept the apartment in mint condition and, on the first day of every month, he left a new envelope filled with $1,300 on the kitchenette counter.

March quickly transformed into April, inviting the daily downpours that drenched the isle of Manhattan and all of its inhabitants. Ryan’s commute down to Wall Street grew more cumbersome each day, but the blame could not lie entirely upon the weather. He had given up on his prayers regarding the potential enjoyment of his job. After only slight improvements in his working hours and treatment by the firm’s partners, Ryan internalized that work was work and that was all there was to it. Despite the relief granted by lowered expectations, he still trudged heavily in his khaki trench-style raincoat and black rubber galoshes three blocks to the subway station to catch his 7:36 a.m. 4 train each day.

But this morning, he left the apartment a few minutes earlier than usual. Instead of crowding underground with his commuter crew, suffocated by the tunnel heat and dampness of the stale air, he leaned on the street level, circular railing of the 14th Street/Union Square station beneath the awning designed for such occasions. Breathing in the rain through his cold nostrils, he slid his thumb across his smartphone screen, assessing the morning email damage.

As his phone notifications failed to capture his attention, Ryan shoved the device into the depths of his trench coat pocket and listened for the rumbling arrival of the 4 train beneath his feet, glancing to his left and then to his right. Commuters were not the only folks huddled under the station’s umbrella, avoiding a second shower of the morning. A variety of panhandlers lined the hub’s perimeter, not permitting the weather to disrupt a day’s worth of begging. The eclectic crowd reached out to every commuter shuffling down the slippery stairs, catching any spare change from their morning coffee and pastry purchases at the nearby food trucks. No needy hand passed the stairwell boundary, careful as to not enter the subway premises and violate the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s solicitation laws.

“I’ll bet you $1 you’ll read this sign,” read a jagged piece of cardboard propped up by an old, bearded man sitting on an old red milk crate. A woman with deep bags beneath her eyes paced uneasily between the two sides of the stairwell with a dirty Starbucks cup in her right hand and a crying child hitched onto her left hip. “Please help me and my hungry baby… please help me and my hungry baby…” she echoed.

Ryan observed the elderly man and pleading mother without looking directly at either of them. If only he actually had a quarter for every person who asked him for help during his time living in the city. However, the longer he listened, the more difficult it became to maintain his heartless shell. He could feel his empathy growing for these struggling souls in his veins and decided to relocate a few feet away. His train would arrive any minute now.

As Ryan inched closer to the stairwell, a sweet melody muted the ruckus of rush hour and the begging voices surrounding it. Near the stairwell, a young man, probably in his 20s, serenaded the morning crowd with a soft Spanish tune on his worn acoustic guitar. His dirty fingers plucked and picked and strummed, dancing along the strings with instruction from his muscles’ memory. Ryan noticed the slight five-o-clock shadow dusting the man’s chin, the goose bumps on his skinny arms protruding from his faded t-shirt, the exposed leg hair through the gaping holes of his tattered jeans. Taking another second to study the talented man’s face, Ryan stopped dead. He recognized the ragged black backpack on which the musician sat, as well as the surplus army green canvas guitar case splayed open next him accepting rather generous donations.

In that instant, the cement beneath his feet began to shake. The face of his watch announced the time: 7:36 a.m. Hiding his eyes behind his coat lapels, Ryan snuck down the stairs, through the turnstile and onto his morning train, wishing audibly that Charlie failed to notice his presence among his morning audience. Nearby passengers glanced in his direction with furrowed brows, concerned they were sharing their commute with one of the crazy men who speaks to himself on the subway.

Despite his efforts, Ryan could not remove the image of Charlie from his mind for the rest of the day. His walk to work, time at the office, returning commute home— each piece of his day brought him back to the subway station. The slew of stories Ryan concocted in his mind over the past few months regarding how Charlie spent his days simply disappeared and, in their place, rested the memory of the morning.

At dusk Ryan paced the few blocks separating his apartment from the subway station for a half hour, contemplating how he should handle his recent discovery. “Can I confront him?” he muttered to himself. “Should I even tell him I know how he spends his days?” He paced some more. “Hey man, I saw you outside the subway this morning playing your guitar for money, but I just wanted to say I’m cool with it,” he practiced. No way in hell, Ryan thought, scratching his the right side of his head. Charlie paid his rent in full and on time every month. He kept the apartment cleaner than Ryan did. At the end of the day, did it matter that he chose to earn a living by entertaining subway commuters, or any other streetwalkers for that matter? He was in no way breaching the roommate contract Ryan presented the day they first met.

Hiking up the two flights of stairs to the apartment, Ryan made his final decision. Pushing the front door open with his shoulder, he noticed a bright light beaming from Charlie’s room. Several hours shy of 11 p.m., Ryan wondered what brought his roommate home earlier than usual. He stepped carefully down the hallway and knocked twice on Charlie’s open door. He crouched low to ground in his typical attire: dark blue jeans and an obscure concert t-shirt. His backpack and guitar case rested at the edge of the door frame. Before Ryan could speak, his mind jumped to the view of Charlie’s room he was witnessing for the first time. A black satin curtain hid the room’s one window, falling lightly along the top of a modern, white leather loveseat. A 55-inch, flat-screen television posed on a wall mount across the room, accompanied by the latest video game systems on a table below and surround-sound speakers perched in each corner of the room. A full-sized bed with black satin sheets resembling the curtains consumed the remainder of the room. Charlie looked up from his perch on the floor, where he seemed to be working on the speaker wiring.

Slowly closing his gaping mouth, Ryan changed his mind.

“Come on in, man. What’s up?” Charlie asked, confused by the expression on Ryan’s face.

“Uhh, uhh… crazy weather we had today, huh?”

Originally written for my “Storied New York” seminar

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