"If you don't want to give me money, or a job, or something to eat," he announces loudly to the subway car, "then why not adopt me? I'm cleaner than a dog, I'm housebroken, so I don't have to be walked." Most of us are amused, but still, not many come across with the handout he's really after. I don't, I just don't feel like it today, and besides I'm absorbed in a book, which seems excuse enough.
I look up, though, after he passes, and notice that a rather pretty girl down the aisle is smiling, and that when the beggar—he's surprisingly young, and surprisingly clean-cut, even good-looking—comes to her seat, he smiles back, and when she gets off at the next station he pops out too and strides beside her, chatting her up, she still smiling, obviously feeling not unfriendly towards him, or, more than that, leaving the rest of us, or me anyway, to wonder if the whole thing was a put-on, two kids on a lark, but no, he did look like he needed help, hair too oily, clothes stained past the cusp of respectability, neither of which seemed to bother the girl at all, so who knows, maybe we've had the chance to be present at the onset of an unlikely romance, something from a movie, a "cute meet" they call it, and can go back to what we'd been doing, our consciences, such as they are, absolved for once, at peace.
Sweet to remember the tiny elevator I used to take to the garret someone had loaned me as an office and the way three people would crowd into its one-meter square and share our scents and stinks and emanations, even the half-thug from the floor below whose rock radio stations raged up through the ceiling at me but who must have spent half his pay on whatever cologne he soaked himself in, so raptly buoying it was.
And the woman who perfumed herself with something that threw me centuries back to some lost time of life I never lived but would passionately have liked to, and whom I suspect suspected by the way I inhaled her perfumes and powders and flesh scents, trying to keep them, keep them, that I was a clod and so manifested an edge of contempt in her glance at this pervert she was forced to slip past to get off.
And descending at lunchtime our rattling conveyance as patient as a donkey with two men from some Middle East country whose language I couldn't even name, how the rich reek of the meal they'd just eaten—onions and lamb—infused the minuscule volume of our shared air.
And once, outside on the sidewalk, a girl kissing her boyfriend goodbye, twice, thrice, who, as she swung before me, lifted the mass of her hair from her neck as though the day were terribly hot, which it wasn't at all, and I fancied the bouquets from that smooth nape trailing behind her like the cloud puffs from a skywriting airplane, so clear to me I felt if I walked a little higher on my toes, I could plunge my face in them and become a scented cloud myself.
All at Once
Farrar, Straus and Giroux