When I get off at 145th Street and St. Nicholas and walk up 145th to Convent on my way to work, I pass one of those New York City omnipresent coffee-and-bagel coaches, just large enough for one person, a gross of bread products, and a coffee urn as large in circumference as a water main.
I stop there occasionally to snag a cinnamon-and-raisin bagel, without anything ("con nada" to Edgar, the Ecuadorian server), to flex my jaws on before getting in to work. (Some may sing the praises of "New York bagels," but a bagel, no matter whether authentically boiled or pumped out corporation-style is still just a discus of dense dental-gumming carbohydrate, less a food source than a kind of mortar for plugging up the hole of hunger. One does not eat a bagel but gnaws it.)
This day, as I approach the coach, I pass by a man sitting on a stoop, to my left. He wears a dull cranberry-colored sweater, tattered and raveled, and an equally ragged and reddish knit cap. He sits on the stone steps with his arms wrapped around himself in an embrace that looks like it's both for warmth and for company.
His face, chocolate, splits into a smile that shows the vibrant absence of any front teeth, upper and lower, so that even as he smiles his lips curl inward over the gums. It's a good smile, really, a touch crazed but open, the eyes smiling along with the face, and one I can't resist matching. So I don't. I smile back at him and approach the young Spanish-speaking man encased with the coffee.
Out of my left eye I catch the man join me, sidle up to me, still smiling, still self-wrapped tightly, so I face him, wondering what he wants. "Could you buy me a cup of coffee?" he asks, the words aspirated and slurry because of his missing teeth. Now, I get dunned all the time in New York – I don't know if I have some sign Cain-like bossed on my forehead that marks me out as an easy mark, but whatever it is, grifters and drifters sense it immediately – and I usually make good with whatever change I have hanging around in my pockets.
So I wasn't surprised to suddenly find myself companioned, didn't feel threatened by the sudden friendliness or the request for subsidy. And, to be honest, it felt good to be accosted in an honest manner, if that makes any sense to say, on the way to doing my economic duty for the day and playing my role as responsible adult. Here was an offer for exchange with another human who seemed harmless and in a bit of a need that I could satisfy without any real sacrifice. Why not? I feel good, he feels good, the coffee man makes a little extra money, and the loneliness gets a momentary defeat.
I say to him, "Of course I'll buy you a coffee." And then, smile still there, he comes in with the real request: "Could you make that a large coffee?" Pleased by his skill -- hook me, then reel me in – I say, "Of course I'll buy you a large coffee. Milk? Sugar?" "Regular," he says, "two sugars."
By this time we're at the counter, and I toss the order up to the young man: "Un café grande, con leche y dos azucáres." Edgar smiles at my bad Spanish (I should have said "dos cucharaditas de azúcar," but I remembered too late) and begins the ladling and pouring and lid-snapping-on, and I add "one bagel, cinnamon-raisin, con nada." He puts the coffee on the counter and the smiling man snatches it to him in a gesture that says, first, I need this coffee and, two, I better get it before he changes his mind and takes it away. As I'm paying and taking back the bagel and change, he gives me a frank look, still smiling, and says, "I like people, I really do, but you know, the problem is original sin – it made everything bad between everybody."
Then he turns and walks away, back to his stoop. I turn and walk the other way.
I walk past the people who, every morning, look damaged to me, or lost, or stunned, or bewildered, or grim with finding purpose in life. But now I look at them with his words in my ears, and I have to admit that he has some rightness on his side -- we rocket past each other like those chariots in the Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur that had the knives fixed to the hubcaps, cutting each other to ribbons if we get too close, our blades of separation honed sharp by manufactured distrust and dislike and mind-phantoms of reality and rightness.
I know he's glad I bought him the coffee. I'm glad I bought him the coffee. Nothing's changed. Well, not "nothing" – just a little bit less original sin going around. For the moment. I don't know if that is a triumph or not, but it feels this side of good. I'll take it. And gnaw my way through my sustenance as I walk away.
This is my definition of real theatre.