It was hot and humid on another busy day in New York City. People, the young and the old, rushed up and down the sidewalks, and hundreds of yellow cabs filled the streets, honking impatiently for the cars in front to move forward so they could deliver their passengers to their destinations and pick up their next fare, all with the purpose of making a decent profit before the end of their shift.
In the midst of all this activity, shadowed by such grandeur as the Trump Tower; the Empire State Building; and high-class corporate buildings, condos, hotels, and shops, sat a quiet, homeless beggar of about twenty-seven years of age.
The expression on his face was unmistakably one of misery and unhappiness. His face was dirty, and his overgrown hair, although black, was now a brownish colour, emphasizing its need for clean, warm water and a shampoo.
His only possessions were a tattered brown knitted sweater that he wore with a pair of black pants, a metal bowl that was bent out of shape and served as a container for a hot meal and to collect change from the generous passersby, a worn-out rug that he sat on, a ragged sleeping bag, and an old pillow on which to lay his head at night.
Fortunately for him, the streets of New York were populated with many well-to-do men and women, thus the greater were his chances of getting enough coins to buy his next meal. So as not to miss every opportunity to collect a coin, the beggar would sit on the sidewalk day after day, night after night, to the point where many of the people who worked in the nearby office buildings would look out for him after their lunch break to give him their leftover change.
One afternoon, a few hours before rush hour, a dark- green Bentley Continental GT pulled up to the curb in front of the spot the man had chosen to sit for the past many months. The car gleamed under the sun. The young beggar had seen many like it, and this one did not excite him, “After all,” he thought to himself, “a person that rich has no time for a man as poor as I am.”
Then a strange thing happened. The car’s four- way flashers came on and the driver stepped out without switching off the car. This puzzled the beggar. “This person must have stopped because of me; after all, the closest store is down the street, and there are parking spaces available there,” he thought.
The beggar felt intimidated as the figure seemed to be heading toward him. She was a young African- American woman who appeared to be a business executive. Shy and ashamed, the beggar bowed his head, looking into his metal bowl, which held a five dollar bill and five quarters.
The woman did not say a word, she only handed to him a large brown envelope with nothing written on it. He looked up and she smiled at him as he accepted her mysterious gift. She then departed in the magnificent piece of machinery, the smooth engine humming a pleasing song as it vanished into the busy streets of the city.
Excited about his good fortune, the man quickly hid the envelope beneath his sweater and went to look for a deserted place, away from the watchful eyes of anyone who might want a part, or worse, all, of the treasure he was sure was contained in the envelope. In his excitement, he did not bother to take his possessions with him as he ran across the busy street and made his way to the back of a small, low-rise building.
“God damn you!” the beggar exclaimed suddenly in disappointment as he took a peek inside the envelope. He had expected to see a bundle of cash, but instead he realized that he had been the victim of a cruel joke. “The stupid, cheapskate lady with her flashy car just needed some amusement in her boring day, and I, a poor innocent man, am her entertainment!” he thought angrily.
The envelope contained a book and nothing else, not even a quarter. Angry, and without examining the book, the beggar dropped it back into the envelope and threw it against the wall with all the power he could summon, leaving it where it landed in a corner between two walls.
Disappointed, the beggar walked slowly back to his accustomed begging spot, kicking out of his path the garbage that lay on the ground and thinking, “Without a doubt I am a fool to actually have believed that a poor beggar like me could expect even as little as a dime from such a rich person. Who was I kidding?” Realising that the end of the work day was near, he began to pick up his pace, as this was the time of day that promised more than he could ever hope to get from some woman in a Bentley, or any other such person for that matter.
“Hey! Hey! Hey! What the hell are you doing?” the beggar screamed at two men who were taking away his possessions. A storekeeper stood nearby overseeing the operation as the two men carelessly tossed the beggar’s rug, sleeping bag, metal bowl, and other possessions into the back of a black pickup truck. “Where are you taking my things? This is all I’ve got!” he cried out, running to catch the two men before they got into the truck and sped away, but he was too late.
Upset, first about the cruel joke played on him by the rich woman, then about the two men who had taken his things, he went over to the storekeeper. “This was the only solution to your stubbornness,” the storekeeper began. “I have asked you kindly many times to pack up and leave my storefront, but you would not listen, that is why I called the trash collectors, paying with money out of my own pocket, to take your junk away. It is going to a place more worthy of your kind. After all, such a filthy man as you does not belong in such prestigious city streets as these.” All this the storekeeper said in a hurtful and arrogant tone to condemn the poor beggar.
Feeling powerless, the beggar could not summon the will to fight back; after all, an empty, growling stomach and an unhappy soul are no match for a well-fed, healthy, proud, and arrogant man. Instead, with his head bowed, the beggar turned away and began to walk in the direction the truck had taken with his only possessions, while the storekeeper stood laughing and rejoicing at his unjust victory.
Many days had turned into months since his possessions were taken away by the two trash collectors. The beggar’s stomach complained more angrily and loudly as each day passed. Failing to find his things after much searching, he decided it best to start all over again, only this time he had to be content with a side street. Only a few people came by each day, even rush hour did not offer much action.
Unlike the last street he was on, on this street he got less than twenty bucks each day instead of the forty to sixty, or even as much as one hundred dollars that he got on some days.
Often the worst things that happen to us are a slap on the face, awakening us to the reality of what has become of our life, each and every time leaving us with the choice to either mend the past and redirect our path to a more favorable one, or to continue down the same path, destined to be led by the random wind, whose destination is never predictable. Just this, the beggar was about to realise.
The blinding glare of the florescent lighting in the emergency room forced the beggar to close his eyes after his first attempt to open them. “Where am I,” he asked of a young lady in white who stood over him.
“You are in the emergency room of the hospital,” she replied with a comforting smile. “Do you not remember what happened to you last night?” The beggar had no answer and only looked confused. The nurse continued, “You must count yourself a very, very lucky man. You were attacked and beaten almost to death, but fortunately, a man who was passing by the alley where you lay unconscious called an ambulance, and out of the goodness of his heart, he even paid for the extensive treatment needed to patch you up, knowing that a beggar would not be able to afford the high medical fee. I doubt that you recall him, but he said he sees you begging on the sidewalk on his way to and from work.”
The beggar was embarrassed. Without a word, he looked away from the nurse, and turning his face the other way, he saw his reflection in the large window that overlooked the city lights and tears began to roll down his cheeks. “What has become of the son of my father? My life? Have I really lost hope in living?
Yahaya Baruwa is the bestselling author of Struggles of a Dreamer: The Battle between a Dream and Tradition. Born and raised in Kano, Nigeria, Yahaya immigrated to Canada in 2001, at the age of twelve with his family. Yahaya is a graduate of York University. He lives and works in Toronto.