I have just missed the 6:30 Commuter Rail. I'm sitting in the Burger King at North Station, telling myself as I have dinner that the reason people are "switching from McDonald's to Burger King" is not because of the flame broiling, but because Burger King regularly has rest rooms and McDonald's does not.
As I'm writing a letter he sits opposite me. Disheveled, a haunted-faced derelict. "'Scuse me, sweetheart," he says. "Can I have a nickel?"
I look him in the eye and say, "I'll give you a nickel if you don't call me sweetheart," and he says, "Okay ... ma'am." I give him a nickel.
His name is Frank but he calls himself Quaker. He has just come out of detox.
The Celtics are playing the 76'ers in the Boston Garden across the street from us; a radio by the serving counter squeaks a thin play-by-play. Quaker leans toward the speaker.
"The Celtics are gonna win," he says. His eyes are bright with hunger and he speaks with desperate conviction. "They gotta win! Right? Do you think they're gonna win?"
I have no choice but to agree with him. His need is that great. He strains to hear the radio, enraptured. He gets up, goes over to the counter, asks a young woman for the score. He returns to our table and tells it to me.
Two Styrofoam cups sit before him; one holds coffee, the other water. He lifts each in turn to his lips. His hands tremble. "How nice," he says, struggling. "Oh how nice it would be to have a drink."
I tell him, quietly, "Drink your coffee." Or water. We switch back and forth.
"I'm wicked," Quaker tells me, grinning. "But I'm good. Do you think I'm good?"
"You're good," I say, matter-of-factly.
He nods emphatically. "I know," he says. "I know I'm very good. But I'm wicked." Suddenly he cries out, as though in great pain, "The Celtics gotta win! I can't live if they don't win!" A sob catches in his throat. "That'll be the end. They gotta win."
"They will win," I insist, quietly at first. But soon I grow louder as well. "They will win. But if they don't there's the next game. You've just got to make it to the next game."
He shuffles from our table to the counter and back again. Gets the score. Tells it to me. Tries to drink his water, his coffee. Repeats his litany. Tells me how wicked he is, how good he is. I agree with it all.
On one trip back his face is triumphant. "They're gonna win!" he shouts. "They're ahead by seven points!" He passes me, tousles my hair.
My body tenses. I say, softly, "I was wondering if you could do me a favor -- "
He understands instantly. "I'm sorry," he says quickly, contrite. "I won't do that again."
"That's okay. You didn't know."
He agonizes as the game is tied, as the Celtics and 76'ers go into overtime. I buy him a cup of coffee. The woman at the counter asks, "Is he bothering you?" and I say, "No, not at all."
Two cops dine in the next aisle down from us. The one with hooded eyes and a lean face scowls in our direction. At that moment I realize that if I had a choice of whom I'd want to meet in a dark alley, it would be Quaker.
Quaker asks me for a dollar. I give it to him. He later asks for another dollar so he can get to Lowell; and as I give him that, too, he says, "I know I'm a moocher but I'm good. Do you think I'm good?"
I repeat: Yes, I think he's good. Very good. If I didn't think so I wouldn't have given him the money.
He looks at me with sad eyes and asks, plainly, "Do you think I'd hurt anybody?"
"No." I am not merely agreeing with him; I am sincere this time. "I don't think you would."
"It's not my policy to hurt anyone." He shakes his head. "Not my policy."
I smile at him and say, "I like your policy."
He grins back. "I do, too."
Less than a year earlier I had spent my days in hotel lobbies, careful to carry myself as though I were a paying guest. I walked quietly to the women's lounge when an instinctual alarm went off that told me I should move, and returned to the lobby when I felt my time in the lounge was up. I set out again on a chilly Manhattan street in the middle of February to find another hotel, folded my winter coat carefully to hide the rents inside. I always had a place to stay at night, but I would awaken in a friend's apartment and not remember where I was. Or I would use my graduate school's 24-hour student lounge, stretched out on the couch as others quietly studied, washing up in the bathroom as best I could when morning came.
Then I moved to Massachusetts, and not having a refrigerator was small potatoes. I had registered with a temp agency before I'd signed the lease.
Quaker hurries to the counter again, asks for the score again, hurries back. Tells me what's got to be. The Celtics are an allegory now. They have to win.
The buses to Woburn stopped running hours ago. When I get to the Winchester Depot I'll have a two-and-a-half mile walk home. That is small potatoes, too.
It is 8 PM and I have to leave; the Commuter Rail pulls out at 8:30. Quaker wants to go to the Boston Garden. He holds onto me, rests his arm on my London Fog coat as I carry my attache in my other hand. It takes forever to cross the multi-laned Causeway Street. I feel an affinity with him; there but for the grace of God, Goddess, or Whatever, am I.
He must sit in the doorway to rest for a couple of minutes before we continue on. Once inside I tell him to take care, then make my way to the train.
On the way to Winchester I hear that the 76ers have won, and I wonder how Quaker is taking the news.