The end of summer was only a week past and
already, it seemed far behind. The past days in Washington had been rather uncomfortably
below normal. Very windy, even now as Nicholas Harrison Gabriel fought the evening
rush-hour on 15th Street bound for Virginia.
But he didn't mind any of these: the weather or the traffic. This was all part of
life inside the Capital Beltway. You get used to it after seven consecutive years in the
area. As a matter of fact, he thought as he drove past the classic edifice of the Main
Treasury building, that's what makes this town what it is: its own sets of knowns and
For instance, the hordes of civil servants that implement or enforce the
government bureaucracy daily upon the newborn and the social security recipients alike:
there wouldn't be much need for keeping them on the government payroll if they all knew
what they were doing and then maybe learned how to do them better later so they
wouldn't have to do them again. Most of them have to be kept in the dark, some sort of
the netherworld of the unknown, so they could justify keeping their jobs.
On the other hand, there were the givens, the known events before they
happen such as an evening logjam on a cold and windy late September workday, the
government holidays, the blooming of the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, the
July Fourth parade and other such Washington things.
Nicholas Gabriel was on his way home from work just like these hordes of
civil servants he was on the road with heading south towards the Potomac. Unlike them,
though, he didn't work for the U.S. government. Work was for Hunt, Ingram and Kimura
Partnership, PC, Consulting Engineers, up 18th Street between M and L Northwest. And
home was a two-bedroom condo in Alexandria near the beltway at Duke and Telegraph.
But he wasn't heading straight home either. He was on his way to the Ellipse, a stopover
he had made on a few other occasions, to see a friend, a man who introduced himself to
him some six months ago at a construction site as Edward McKenny.
Edward McKenny was a bum. A real bum. One of several thousand homeless
in the city. But before he was a bum, he was a member of the working class society.
Middle class. Family. Wife and two kids (a boy and a girl). He was a man. And he had
friends. At least he thought he did.
Everything was fine: the marriage, the job, the kids, the wife. For twenty
years. The kids were grown and off to college. There was some talk of a renewal of
marriage vows, a second honeymoon. Then he made some decisions which sometimes
cost people their credibility at work when they didn't work out, and sometimes cost them
When the job went, so did the money savings, the house, and so did the wife.
But what hurt the most was the loss of respect especially those of his kids, not to mention
that of his wife and everybody else's.
All of that happened in the next four years, followed by the next three of trying
to bounce back, getting into another relationship, and another, and another, a process
which brought him to the conclusion that women aren't trustworthy people and perhaps
colder than men. Not much happened, in terms of employment and personal economics,
and human relationships, to regain the respect and dignity he lost in life.
Thus, it came to be that as far as he was concerned, he might as well have lost
his life. In the two years that followed which led to this day on a bench at the Ellipse, he
descended rapidly into a state of gloomy alienation, relinquished all his cares in the world,
what little self-respect he had left and any hope of adding to it.
He turned into a bum. Not a wino, though, which he refused to be called as
Nicholas once inadvertently did. He wasn't the drinking type. Beer was the only alcoholic
beverage he cared to dull his senses with when he could afford it. But he was a regular
bum just like any other seen at the Farragut Square, McPherson Square, Lafayette Park,
the Ellipse, the DuPont Circle.
His alienation from humanity ran so deep within him that even among his
(present) kind, he was an outcast. He gave no quarters and asked none of his fellow
bums. He refused to share a grate with anyone once he had claimed it for the night. Very
rarely would he remain on a park bench when someone else came to occupy it.
Of all people, bums or regular humans, it seemed very unlikely as he felt then -
six months ago at that construction site up 14th and L - that a fellow like Nicholas, a
foreigner... well, a naturalized American citizen, might gain his confidence. He wasn't
particularly fond of any foreign nationals with their many accents and alien ways coming
over to take over American jobs and everything else that goes with them - housing,
schools, the whole neighborhood. At the same time, however, he admired how they
virtuously manage to overcome anything that tries to put them down especially some
people's attitudes toward them, and make something out of themselves in America.
This was basically what fueled his curiosity about the man and caused him to
open up to Nicholas, besides the fact that Nicholas helped him get a few days of
temporary work at the construction site. He was scavenging at the site for some scrap
pieces of plywood or drywall he could use as a lean-to for when it rained (it was late April
and it poured frequently then). The carpenter foreman caught an eye of him and was
about to have him thrown out to the other side of L Street when Nicholas, a professional
engineer who could toss any ordinary foreman about the jobsite at the flick of a finger,
Nicholas offered to give him a chance to work for what he needed, and then
some. He stayed for four days clearing up finished rooms and floor areas of construction
remnants, picking up trash piles and carrying them to the trash bins. When he left, he had
his lean-to parts, plus eighty-five dollars in his pocket, more money than he had seen at
one time in almost three years. He also carried Nicholas' phone number on a piece of
paper which Nicholas had offered for him to use to get in touch, for anything.
Whatever form of relationship now existed between the two of them came as a
result of human curiosity. The help Nicholas extended to Edward at the construction site
was a purely humanitarian act, not at all personal. But later, when he looked into the
bum's eyes, he saw a man with a human dignity that still stood out but somehow lacking in
the spirit to defend it, pursue it. The man, in other words, simply didn't care as he would
frequently mumble on every single occasion of Nicholas' presence.
"I don't give a damn," he would say under his breath, looking at the
Washington monument at a distance across Constitution Avenue or the rush of humanity
around Farragut Square. "I don't give a damn anymore," he would say again with absolute
indifference to all that existed around him.
He wasn't mad or angry, Nicholas had observed. He was just totally uncaring.
Empty. Devoid of any desire for any form of recognition or the basic human respects
He meant what he said everytime he said it: He didn't give a damn; he didn't
care. It was the simple truth about him, the single, most meaningful thing he stood for.
He was a bum.
There was no escaping his curiosity when Nicholas learned that this social
derelict was once a middle-class wage-earner. And not only that: a husband and a father.
A family man.
What happened? How could this be - in America?
People from all over the world would do anything - risk their whole life-
savings, even their lives, sell the clothes off their backs if they have to - to come to
America. And then start from nothing once they're over.
My parents did the same thing twenty years ago, he thought. They didn't have
to sell the clothes off their backs, and they didn't exactly have to start from nothing. But
they came, uprooted the whole family from the old country, brought me over when I was
twelve, and my sister, two years older, and bettered themselves, their lives. Our lives.
But this - this abysmal human existence. This bum's life. This bum! How
could anyone possibly allow this to happen to himself? In America?
What could possibly bring a man to this point of uncaring in life? Here, in
Nicholas finally squeezed himself out of the tangle on 15th Street, made the
right turn to Constitution and pulled in quickly to the Ellipse where he had no trouble at
all finding a space at the perimeter parking.
Edward was waiting for him on a bench facing the White House. He wore a
spring coat that must have fitted him nicely ten, twelve years ago when he belonged to the
working class and before he lost that middle-class weight, without which now the coat and
even the rotting corduroy jacket under it looked one or two sizes too big. He sat with
arms folded over his chest, legs stretched out one over the other on a heel, contemplating
the mud-stained tip of his beat-up shoes and hardly took notice of the man who stood
"Wake up, you bum!" said Nicholas abruptly.
"Huh?" Edward muttered, stirring. "Oh, it's you. Hey, don't call me that. I'm
no bum," he said, mocking a reprimand of Nicholas. "I might look like a bum, but I'm no
"What the hell are you? Who the hell are you - the Secretary of State? White
House Chief of Staff?"
"I'm a human being just like you and the man who lives in that house and
everybody else in this stinkin' world. I didn't think you'd show up. Welcome to my bench.
Have a seat."
"I got your message," Nicholas said, sitting down while Edward inched away
to his half of the bench and straightened up a bit. "The secretary couldn't wait to give it to
me as soon as she found me. 'A call from the White House' she said."
"That wasn't exactly a lie. I made the call from that telephone over there,"
Edward said, pointing to a public telephone several yards away clockwise of the Ellipse
with a good view of the White House. "I have to make reference to a specific location I'm
calling from -"
"Cut the crap, Edward. What's up?" Nicholas asked, turning serious. "You've
finally decided to contact your family and let them get you out of this waste?"
"What family?" the bum muttered. "I don't have any family. I never had any
family. Don't talk to me about that."
"If that isn't it, then I know what it is. I know what it is. You bought a house
in McLean, Virginia!"
"Get outa here."
Edward didn't even open his mouth that time. He just stared at Nicholas
looking somewhere between irritated and seriously desperate to communicate something
to another human being.
"I know," Nicholas went on, hoping perhaps to cheer the man up even for one
moment of his wretched situation in life or to actually succeed in conning him out of his
honest reason for wanting to see him. "You went and got yourself a job out there. A full-
"Please don't insult me. Quit making fun of me."
"Alright, I'm sorry."
"Don't say you're sorry," said Edward, shooting up from his half of the bench,
stomping a shoe in a half-step on the ground toward Nicholas. "If you're going to do
something for which you're going to be sorry, then don't do it. But once you did it
anyway, don't apologize for it. Stick to it. If you made an ass of yourself, then be an ass."
And walking a few steps away while gathering the loose coat and hugging it around him
against the early fall chill, added: "Just be a goddamn ass just like everybody else out
"Alright, alright," Nicholas cajoled, unable to reconcile with the idea that he just
admitted being an ass to a street man. "So, can we talk straight now? Is there anything I
can do for you? Anything you'd like me to do for you, Edward?"
"No. Nothing," said the homeless man without turning.
"C'mon, Edward. What did you get me out here for?"
"Nothing, I said."
"Then why did you call?" Nicholas now half-yelled. "You must have a reason for
"Maybe I do, but why do I have to tell you? Why do you have to ask?"
"Look, man, I haven't got all night. And it's getting darker, and colder. You're
used to this kind of life. I'm not."
"Then go home," Edward replied, still not turning, talking to the wind, watching
the mist coming out of his mouth and letting Nicholas talk to his back. "Don't let me hold
"Darn right I won't," said Nicholas, getting up quick and walking towards the car.
Halfway there, he heard Edward call: "Got anything to eat?"
Nicholas hadn't intended to leave. He just wanted to see how long it took Edward
to drop his cover. To open up. And when, a minute later, the two of them were sitting on
the bench again, he knew that asking for food wasn't itself Edward's act of opening up. It
was just another cover. Maybe he did need the food alright. But that wasn't it. He
needed to unload some inner burden. He was lonely, in his mind, and in his heart.
Why do you have to ask? Nicholas knew he really didn't have to. And the food he
brought - a chicken sandwich - which he had in his overcoat lining pocket all along was
secondary to bringing himself as company on the bench, or anywhere else around the
Ellipse the two of them might wander off to. He sat quietly on the bench while the bum
ate, both hands buried deep in his overcoat side pockets, one of them holding two packs
of cigarettes he would hand out in the next appropriate moment.
"How's work today?" Edward asked unexpectedly when the chicken sandwich
was down to approximately two bites.
"Not bad, thanks. Very kind of you to ask."
"Say, what kind of money do you make working as a -"
"That's not very kind of you to ask," Nicholas rebuffed.
"What the hell does it matter? I don't care."
"That's right. However, I might say that working as a structural engineer for these
guys, the partnership firm I'm with, I do okay. I pay the mortgage, and the bills, pretty
much on time."
Silence. Then, finally, Edward did open up, saying: "I want you to tell me
something, Nicholas. What is important to you?"
"What do you mean important?" Nicholas asked after two seconds of tossing it
around in his head.
"I mean - is that it? Paying the mortgage and the bills? Is that all that's important
Nicholas suddenly felt insulted but laughed at himself for having let himself feel
that way because he underestimated the depth of a bum's question. He must not forget
that Edward had as much and perhaps more experience in life as a regular person or
member of society than he did at this point of their lives. And especially now that the man
had joined the lowest of the American socio-economic class - the scum stratum of society,
and learned to live on the streets, to do without. He had seen both sides. If nothing else,
this one human being, this one bum, had depth.
"No, that's not it. Of course not," he said to the street man, beaming with
belligerence. "Don't be fucking smart with me now!"
"Well, then tell me."
"For one thing, if paying the mortgage and the bills are all that's important to me,
you wouldn't be eating that sandwich, and I wouldn't be sitting here with you right now."
Edward held from taking the last bite while he regarded Nicholas through the
corners of his eyes. The few moments of silence that followed spoke to each of them the
words that neither one had to say to the other. Nicholas knew that Edward understood
his answer. And Edward knew that Nicholas knew that he understood. He finished up the
sandwich and began searching meticulously for something in his coat pockets with both
hands to make sure Nicholas noticed.
"What else," he said, "do you consider important? For yourself. Money?
Women? Fast cars?"
"You think I'm a shallow person, don't you?"
"Not at all, my friend. Not at all."
"Of course I'd like to have money, women and I don't know about fast cars. But
I'd also like to be good, very good at what I do, if not the best, but better than most. And
I'd like to be recognized for it. Have some respect. That's what's important to me, too.
What are you doing? What - you got fleas all over?" Nicholas asked as Edward
continued frisking himself.
"No," Edward said. "I'm looking for my cigarette. I thought I had one I saved
earlier." And before he could say another word, an unopened pack of Marlboro dropped
on the bench beside him so suddenly he thought at first it fell from heaven. He stared at it
a moment in disbelief. A whole pack!
Then he picked it up, broke the seal on the flip-top box and took out a stick. He
found a book of matches in his hip pocket and lit up. While he did so, Nicholas said:
"That stuff's eventually going to kill you."
"Is that what you're trying to do?" asked the street man, exhaling the cigarette
smoke in satisfaction. "Kill me?"
"I'm not kidding you."
"What's there to kill? You can't kill a dead man. I don't think that's what you
bother with me for. I think the reason you're sitting here with me now instead of being in
bed at home getting laid with some woman is because one, you're a natural-born soft-
hearted sucker and two, I remind you that things could be worse than it is now in your
own life. This helps give you strength. And this is one other thing that's important to you
but which you're not saying, you liar: to know that though there may be others up there
above you, spittin' down on your face, there are others here below you that you could do
the same thing to. So if you think I'm gettin' a chicken sandwich and a pack of cigarettes
free, look again. I have to be a homeless person, a street man, a total failure, for you to
know that you're not doing so bad for yourself after all."
"You're sicker than I thought you were, you know that?"
"But I don't care," Edward continued, ignoring Nicholas. "You can do anything
you want. Here, you want to spit on my face too? Spit on my face! Everybody else in
the world has done it."
"That's not what I'm doing. That's not what I want to do, and you know that, so
cut it out!" Nicholas looked at the homeless man sideways and added: "You want to
know what I see when I look at you? You really want to know?"
"Yeah, I want to know. What?"
"I see a defeated American. And I just can't accept that. Or I refuse to believe
that. Not after a whole life back in the old country of seeing all those western heroes, all
those John Waynes and other American characters, tall men of virtue, strong in body and
spirit. I just can't believe you!"
"You've been a victim of American commercial propaganda. Maybe that's one
good thing you came to this country. To learn the truth."
"Okay, then let's forget that. Maybe I was too young. Too naive and
impressionable. What about all those people, including me and my family, immigrants
who flock to this country past and present and make something out of themselves, some
of them practically from nothing? Some of them totally hopeless in their own country,
rejects, bums, and they come to America and rebuild their lives. A rags-to-riches story in
many cases. You're already here. You were born and raised here. And what happens?
You go from a comfortable suburban living to a bench in a city park!"
"They have a different story to tell!" Edward yelled, giving Nicholas a start.
"Everybody has a different story. In their case, and in your case and all the rest of you
foreigners, you have an America to go to. I don't! I'm already here!"
They backed off for about a half a minute, a long half-minute during which Edward
sucked and enjoyed the Marlboro while some resentment gnawed inside of Nicholas for
being referred to as a foreigner. He expressed this to Edward when he spoke again,
especially, he said, when this year is a special year for him being his twentieth anniversary
of coming to the United States of America. Also, that he had been a citizen, an American,
for the last fourteen years.
"Congratulations," Edward said with little interest. "May you live a long and
happy life in America. Enjoy."
Nicholas' reaction turned from resentment to irritation. "Isn't there anything at all
that means something to you?" he asked and immediately felt stupid for having done so for
he almost read the answer on Edward's lips even before it came out of them.
"No," said the homeless man, "nothing at all. Not a damn thing."
"I'm getting pissed," said Nicholas matter-of-factly. "I think I'm getting pissed."
Edward turned his head slowly to look at him.
"You shouldn't let me do that to you," Edward said.
"I know. I shouldn't."
"There used to be a lot of things that mean something to me. Like those things
you said are important to you now. Credit and recognition, respect, competitiveness,
winning." Edward paused, contemplated the south view of the White House. "Not
anymore. They're not important to me anymore."
Now Nicholas felt sad, and afraid. Afraid that if a single human being could come
to such a state of hollowness, so could he. It's alright if the man was ninety-eight years
old, he thought, half blind, half deaf and bedridden twenty-four hours a day. But the man
was in his mid-fifties, able-bodied and alert as a thirty-two-year old man as he was.
"One comes to a point in life when -" Edward continued, now gazing uncaringly
at the silhouettes of the coming night above the trees around the Ellipse. "- after having
done so much for some of those things, and then some, and then some more, they just lose
their importance to him. You... you just don't care anymore. Somehow it doesn't matter
if you lose or win. It seems, with the passing of time, everything becomes less important,
less valuable, less exciting, less of whatever the hell it was before, until.... " A last puff of
the Marlboro before it was tossed away on the grass. "...until it means no more to you
than a warm potful of piss, or even a cold one." He switched his eyes to Nicholas and
looked at him defiantly.
Nicholas inched subtly away to his end of the bench. He was trying to decide
whether he must pity this man or be angry with him. Is this man mentally unbalanced? he
asked himself, but somehow the more drastic question that came to him was: Is the man
right, or wrong?
These he must tell Emil in the old country. The whole scene: everything since he
came to sit on this bench. If what Edward just said was true, he wondered what had really
become to this point in time, of Emil's lifetime ambition to do the same thing he and his
family did: come to America? He wondered, too, what sort of true awareness, and
maturing - ideological, cultural, and everything else that comes with growing up and
getting older - he might have come to now at his age of twenty seven years which might
have made that ambition less important while living all his life in the old country. Back
there, beyond the west coast, across the Pacific Ocean in that ancient island melting pot of
They had been writing to each other for years. It hadn't stopped for more than two
months on a stretch. They were good friends, and remained so. All those twenty years
since he left when he was twelve, and Emil seven.
He loved that boy, like the younger brother he never had. Took care of him,
looked after him since he was two or three. To this day, it was never clear to him if their
families were any blood relations at all. But they were neighbors, close neighbors, and in
the old country, that was as good as being blood related.
By now, Nicholas thought, he must know just about as much as he does what it's
like living in America with all the things he'd read from the letters through the years. What
it's like being here.
He must. Just about, before today.
Nicholas decided to listen to what Edward told him a minute ago - that he
shouldn't let Edward piss him off or he simply should not be pissed at Edward. And on his
own, he also decided that he shouldn't pity him or be angry with him. The things they
understood at this point that one represented to the other did not, and should not, provoke
any kind of reaction on a personal basis. Each of them must realize - and he assumed
Edward did all along (you shouldn't let me do that to you) - that the basis of their human
relationship was out of pure curiosity.
"Looks like it's going to be another cold winter soon, much like last year,"
Nicholas said to lead them off to a different course, the weather, traffic, anything, scanning
the gray firmament above Washington. "That was a terrible winter. Worse than I've ever
seen here. What did you do to get through it? You went to the shelter, I hope?"
"What does it matter what I did or how I did it? The point is I survived. I'm here,
aren't I? No, I did not go to the shelter. I don't like it there. I hate it there. I told you
that." Once again, Edward caught himself looking straight at the White House. He
noticed the light in a couple of second-floor windows just turn on. "You want to know
something?" he said partly to himself. "The man who lives in that house and I are the
"Is that so? Interesting," said Nicholas, looking at the mansion too. "So what?"
"I could've been the one living in there now."
"You're right. What would you do if you were president?"
Edward spoke without interruption for the next several minutes during which
Nicholas questioned off and on what he was really doing sitting in a park bench in the cold
listening to a bum talk about economics, life's philosophy and running the U.S.
"On foreign relations and policies," Edward said with determination, "the first
thing I would do is invade Cuba and re-indoctrinate the population with our ideologies
and way of life. It's a question of culture over there, basically, you understand: Anglo
versus Hispanic, that is. That's why you never hear Castro speak a word of English, even
if he went to Harvard. Next, I'd straighten out that mess in Central America good. Clean
up this whole side of the world first. Land the Marines. Then the Army. Re-activate the
draft if needed. Then I'd go back to Southeast Asia and get even with those gooks over
"On the question of the economy, I'd go protectionism. That's really the same
thing everybody else is doing, especially the Japanese. It doesn't matter who's doing it -
the government or the people. If they don't want to buy our goods, then let's not buy
theirs. Simple as that. Keep 'em out of the country. That would cut down the
unemployment. That's one way, anyway. Another is to put them in the military - the
unemployed - and send them out to fight in Cuba and all over the world. War is good for
this country. It creates work. Generates economy. Keeps everybody busy and out of
Nicholas nearly broke out laughing at that.
"On the social and domestic front, I would work hard to emphasize the role of the
family to maintain law and order in the American society. Parents who don't discipline
their children to the minimum legal standard of social conduct, work and study habits
would be subject to prosecution. The same thing goes for schools all the way up to
college. Teenagers who become pregnant get sent to farms supported mostly with fines
levied on their parents and their boyfriends' parents.
"Children of senior citizens would be held not only morally but legally responsible
for the maintenance of their parents' mental and physical well-being. Anybody who shows
any kind of disrespect to the elderly would pay dearly with time and money.
"All drunk drivers are to be executed right at the site of a fatal accident in the
event of one. The same goes for drug dealers and pushers caught in action. Finally, I
would establish a national funeral kitty, some kind of a presidential commission that
obligates every taxpayer to contribute to, so everybody is assured of a decent funeral.
That would eliminate rip-off undertakers. Get rid of the funeral industry altogether.
That's right. We'll let the government take care of its dead and the living of themselves
and one another."
This part about the funeral kitty understandably must, Nicholas thought, have
come out of an immediate personal concern the bum had at the possibility of one day
finding himself dying on a city street or park or in a trash bin.
He couldn't wait to write to Emil about all these. He could probably start tonight
"Election is coming up in a few weeks," Nicholas said after Edward ended his
presidential platform speech. "Who are you going to vote for?"
"Nobody," Edward replied coldly. He was back to his usual mood of indifference
to the world. "Although I'd like to see somebody else live in that house instead of that
nincompoop sissy in there right now."
"Me, too. He let just about everybody kick his butt around. The Russians, Castro,
the Jews, the Arabs, the Vietnamese, the Iranians. It's sickening."
"I don't care. Who gives a shit?"
"Listen, I got to go. It's getting late."
"Go, go, go," said the homeless man with which Nicholas understood he really
meant 'yes, go and continue to live your life in pursuit of those things that are important,
or are still important to you.' In that, Nicholas also heard a farewell with some undertone
of gratitude although he could not expect the man to mouth it.
But he was wrong. The man found the words to mouth it with. As Nicholas rose
to head to the car, Edward said boldly: "Chicken sandwich was good. Thanks."
These last words they spoke without looking at each other. In fact, Nicholas was
already making the slow steps to his car while Edward remained on the bench looking at
the shadows of the cold night at his feet. When Nicholas fished for his car keys while still
a few yards from the car, he felt the other pack of Marlboros in his coat pocket.
"Hey!" he called back to the man on the bench who turned around and got up
slowly. "I almost forgot. Catch!" And he tossed the pack which Edward caught with
As he turned away to get into the car, he waved to acknowledge a hand the street
man raised weakly with the pack of cigarettes.