Park Bench Dialogue

“So here we are,” he said, “an old fool and a young fool, surrounded by bums in this beautiful garden, thinking we can set the world right by flapping our lips.” The old man waved his hand vaguely towards the side entrance of the library, then scratched his stubble. The salt-and-pepper stubble was long enough it was almost a beard. “Ah,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t given up smoking. I’d love a cigar right now. To celebrate.”

“To celebrate what?”

“To celebrate the fact that there’s still kids like you, dumb enough to think you can learn anything from an ancient failure such as myself.” The old man grinned through well-kept teeth.

“You’re not a failure,” the young man said. He was soft-voiced, clean and tidy, and worked in the library. “I don’t think anybody’s a failure if they’re happy.”

The old man rolled his eyes, then leaned back on the bench and stared up at the skyscrapers that converged towards the clear sky over the older, smaller library building. Mostly black-windowed office towers, with one round-cornered building the color of a russet potato. “I seen all but one of those buildings go up,” the old man said. “Spent my damn life here selling buttons in a dingy office six blocks away, and living in a dingy room six blocks the other way. Never been inside one of them.”

“All you have to do is walk right in.”

“And walk right out again when the guard gives me the stink-eye. I mean, look at me: I could pass for one of them.” The old man waved at a group of homeless men, slumped in their rags and staring at nothing, while office workers clacked past them in their hard-soled shoes, coattails and skirt hems flapping, intent on their lunch hours.

The young man snickered. “Hardly,” he said. “You’re clean, and you don’t have that, that slouch.”

“Okay, I was exaggerating, it’s an old man’s privilege. But I have lived in a one-bedroom in an old brick walk-up for forty-one years. That doesn’t show much ambition.”

“I’m not sure I believe in ambition,” the young man said. “Do you?”

The old man sighed. “Not really,” he said. “Look at all these ambitious folks here. They’re going out to lunch, and they’re almost running. Like someone was behind ’em with a whip.” The office workers strutted by, clacking rapidly, eyes blank, faces set. “They’re the ones those skyscrapers are for. Not me.”

“What’s your room like? Where you live?”

“You know, you got such an innocent way of interrogating a guy…you writing a book or something? Or just tryin’ to find out the secret of life?”

The young man laughed. “Maybe ‘B’ is closer to the truth.”

“And maybe you’re just talking, like me. Anyway, the secret of life is, do honest work and do it honestly, and don’t want too much. Jesus or Buddha or somebody said it. Maybe both.”

“And love? My girlfriend wants to get married.”

“Aha, there’s the rub! I can’t answer that. I was married once, back when I was a baker, but she left me when I went into the button trade to help out my uncle. Said there was no future in it. And she was right!”

“You were a baker?”

“Yeah, used to get on the bus at three-thirty in the morning and go down to Kindermann’s on Fairfax. They’re gone now; the old man died, and the kids didn’t see a future in bread. But let me tell you, there’s always a future in bread, as long as someone’s breathing! And buttons too. You’re a modern young man, and you got buttons all over you.”

The young man stared at his cuffs. “Carlson B503s,” said the old man. “Too cheap for that shirt; I hate to say it, but you been robbed. Anyway, the ex took my daughter with her, and that hurt. But I still see her — the daughter, I mean — once a month. She comes over for dinner. I bake, my girlfriend cooks — “

“You have a girlfriend?”

“She doesn’t live in. We meet twice a week, once at her place, once at mine. Works out better that way. For her and me, at least.”

“So you still bake….”

“Sure I still bake! Always did. What else am I going to do with myself, being who I am, and retired? Sort buttons for a hobby? Come on! Tell you what…. I’ll bake something tomorrow morning and bring it in. You bring some decent cheese — there’s a shop just opened on Santa Fe, you can walk there, you’ll fit right in, not like me. We’ll have us a feast. Deal?”

“Deal,” the young man said.

The young man bought a quantity of overpriced cheese, and jars of spreads besides. They would make a fine present for the old man, who livened up his lunch hours. The old man was at their bench ahead of him, with two large paper grocery sacks at his feet. He had shaved and was wearing a new shirt. “Ah, look at you,” the old man said. He grinned at the young man’s array of logo-spattered bags. “I kinda figured you’d do that. So I baked a heap. Dinner rolls, kaiser rolls, and a couple of brioches. Brought a knife and board too — bet ya didn’t think of that, huh?”

The young man smiled and shook his head.

“Now, go call the boys over, and we’ll let them in on the feast. Sound good?”

“The boys?”

The old man swung his arm, indicating the slumped and staring homeless men planted on benches and steps around them. “This stuff’s only good fresh, so we gotta make sure it’s all eaten today. Otherwise I’ll be insulted. Hey, boys!,” he brayed. The nearest sitters slowly roused themselves from their gray reveries. “Come on, it’s lunch time! Gather round….”

The young man smiled. Life was confusing, but in a good way, he told himself. He unwrapped the first fat round cheese.

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