He was the most unusual friend, yet the most real one I had ever made.
Slumping against my cushioned seat, I sipped coffee from my old green metal mug. Work was tiring today, but mostly because I had gotten up so early and walked there. Now, with my heavy bag of books, I headed toward campus. After class, I’d go home, do my homework, and start my second job as a teacher’s assistant, grading papers. I expected to fall into bed in my tiny apartment by midnight, maybe one o’clock.
I stifled a yawn as the light-rail train pulled up at campus. A quick glance at my analogue watch told me I had five minutes to get to class. That would mean jogging across the paved walkways past many buildings. From my window, I saw a homeless man selling newspapers twenty feet from the stop. He had a nice smile.
I was in such a hurry though. I dashed off the train and jogged past the man, offering an apologetic smile. Tugging open the door of the social sciences building, I smelled coffee. Too bad I didn’t have time to get a refill at the little café with the happy students chatting.
I strode down the tiled corridor heading for the elevators, my footsteps echoing in the vast space, but when I passed a certain classroom, my feet froze on the spot. I turned my head and stared into the classroom, my heart throbbing.
A memory came flooding back to me from a month ago. Standing in the little café down the hall, I had called my father and asked if he wanted to have coffee before class. The humming sounds of engines and moving air from cars in transit filled the background behind my father’s voice.
“I’m running late. Could you please go tell my class I’ll be there?”
So, dressed in about twelve-and-a-half thick layers of winter clothing to ward off the frigid cold from outside, I pushed open the doors to his large classroom, trembling. I gulped and stepped onto the “stage” looking around at all the students in the tiered seating.
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, everyone.”
Conversations stopped. My heart was beating hard.
“I’m the professor’s daughter. He’s running late, but he’ll be here shortly.” Feeling heat infusing my cheeks and reflecting my natural shyness, I sprang from the classroom.
Now, I stood staring at those doors. My beloved father was in the hospital, fighting for his life.
An hour into class, I found myself on the floor of the bathroom, crying. Rubbing my eyes, I glanced at my watch and sighed. “I’m so damn tired.”
Two days later, on the light-rail train, images of that friendly homeless man selling papers came to my mind. I had been evicted many times in my life but only ever spent one night on the street, and it had been brutal. I was glad my student I.D. got me bus and train rides because I couldn’t afford the fare so often. I dug in my purse though and found one dollar and sixty cents.
Crap. I need forty more cents.
Unzipping every small pocket in my purse and wiggling my fingers around my coat pockets, I gradually made that happen. Yes!
Stepping off the bus, I approached the man with the warm brown eyes and the nice smile. “I’d like to buy a newspaper, please.”
“That will be two dollars.”
I handed him the hodge-podge of currency, and he gave me a paper with local news and updates about what his homeless organization was doing for the community.
“Thank you.” I scanned the paper. “This looks very informative.”
“Oh, I think you’ll enjoy it. I’m Sam.”
I shook his hand. “Tanya. Nice to meet you.” I glanced at my watch. I had plenty of time today because the train wasn’t late like normal, but I had gotten done with job number one early and took an earlier train to campus, in the hopes of getting some extra studying done.
I gazed at the gentleman selling the papers. He discussed daily life with me, and gratitude shimmered off him.
What a positive human being you are. His energy was so delightful, I found myself taking a seat next to him and putting my cheek in my propped up hand, chatting with him about mundane but universal topics. He didn’t take things for granted. Then he happened to mention his birthday. It was the same day as my dad’s. A lump of ice descended to my gut, punching it, and my eyes swelled with sudden tears. Sam just became all the more special to me. I looked into his happy face. Gray hair topped his head underneath a floppy hat, and wrinkles filled out a wise face. He was about my dad’s age. Did this man’s wisdom come from deep gratitude about life, despite his being homeless, or did his gratitude come from wisdom?
At any rate, I dug for pennies every time I knew I was going to be on campus, buying the same weekly newspaper from him three times a week. I caught the early train as often as possible, so I’d have the chance to converse with a person who could find peace and contentment in his harsh circumstances.
He'd see me coming, and a huge smile would light up his face. He never asked me if I wanted to buy a paper, but I “surprised” him every time and did. He’d thank me heartily and with true appreciation. I’d sit there on the paved ground exchanging observations about those humanly universal topics. He’d chuckle if I said something witty. My tears would recede in the presence of his profound acceptance.
Walking past the academic buildings, one day, I swiped tears from my wet cheeks. I stopped and witnessed a sunset, the orange, the pink, the blue… Dad, can you hear me? Happy birthday. A sob escaped my mouth and caught the attention of a group of laughing young ladies. I drew in a deep breath and strode forward. Streaks of setting sun reflected off the glass doors of the building right before the train stop. I could see the soda machines. I took the last dollar out of my wallet and dug around my purse to find two quarters. Making contact with the cold metal with my fingertips brought a smile to my face. Thank God.
I entered the building and put the exact change into the vending machine. The soda clunked to the bottom, and I retrieved it.
I walked up to Sam. A paper hung from his hand. Students rushed by him. He turned and saw me, and that huge smile came to his face, the unique smile that had my name on it.
He pressed a hand to his chest and gave me a gallant bow. “How are you, Tanya?”
“Happy birthday.” I handed him the soda.
His eyes warmed with thankfulness that either true friends or truly good people get upon receiving something unexceptional yet exceptional to them. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I hope you enjoy it. My train just pulled up. Have a good night.”
I stepped up onto that train with bittersweet feelings.