Seated on his white bucket, Vincent gives Girl the benefit of his righteous insight.
“What you need in this order is God in your life and a man, a man to help you with those kids or they’re going to end up in the penitentiary.”
“Penitentiary’s packed. No room for my kids.”
“They’ll build more, girl, they’ll build more and you’ll pay.”
“Where do you live?”
“OK. I’m a panhandler, but you’re a taxpayer. You’ll pay, girl.”
Girl stares at him through her dark sunglasses, hands on her hips, fingernails painted blood red. Dressed tight in a jacket and blouse, skirt and heels.
“You listen to me about them kids,” Vincent tells her. “I can see you’re too lenient.”
He shakes his empty paper coffee cup with loose change in it. Passersby on the crowded sidewalk in Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza barely look at him. He grins at those who do, exposing the gap in his mouth where his two front teeth should be. His goatee, gray and weathered, sticks out from his chin sharp as porcupine quills.
“Where’s Little Momma at?” Girl asks him.
“Little short chick.”
“You lost me.”
“With the little babies. Sits right out here usually. I seen her.”
“Little babies? You’ve really lost me.”
Vincent wonders if Girl is crazy. He’s seen her in the Plaza talking to total strangers, the look in their eyes pleading with her to let them go until they quit being polite, don’t care how rude they might seem, and just leave her still talking.
He wipes his brow, inches his wool cap off his forehead. Hot in this sun, brother. He has panhandled in the Plaza for about a year and a half, a plight he blames on unemployment. For years he worked as a laborer and painter. He had a job in the Plaza cleaning streets not too long ago. Saw people hustling change. Saw they did all right. Without work he decided to try his hand at it. He knows what people are thinking, but thank you, he has tried to find work. No one calls him; what can he do?
It was weird at first. He didn’t quite know what to say. He watched Danny, a guy who hustles the Plaza after 5 p.m., zero in on someone, ask, How ya doin’? and shake their hands. He always walked away with some kind of money.
Vincent, 48, followed his example but dropped the ‘How ya doin’?’ rap and instead explained he was unemployed, not homeless, the implication being that in the downtrodden ladder he was one rung above the rest. He wanted people who gave him money to understand that.
Vincent rents a house with his wife – well, not actually his wife but they’ve been together so long she might as well be – and her three children. In fact, she will be here about 4 p.m. today to collect money from him to pay their electric bill. She receives food stamps. The have a goldfish aquarium. They do all right.
“You ain’t married?” Girl asks him.
“Why would I be when there’re women out here like you?”
“I ain’t nothing.”
“Then why you come out here and start hollering at me about your kids?”
“You was just sitting here and I seen you.”
Vincent shrugs out of his yellow windbreaker. Probably shouldn’t have worn black pants. Sun sucking right into them. Feet hot in his sneakers. He dabs sweat off his face. He knows heat, born as he was in Arkansas. His daddy was in the military. Divorced Vincent’s mother when he was but a child and left her with seven kids and is now a Tennessee millionaire. Vincent raises a hand. Swear to God, so help him, take his children if he’s lying. His daddy’s rich, man. Don’t give a good God damn about Vincent, but the old man’s got some bank.
“You look tired,” Girl says.
“I need loving. Can you help me?”
“You looking at me?”
“You like me?”
She laughs, turns as if to leave, but doesn’t move but a step away.
Vincent rattles his cup, asks to use a woman’s cell phone just to shake her up as she walks by.
“I … I,” she stammers,”I don’t have one.”
He loves these people. A lot know him by name. One guy used to give him $100 every Saturday until he saw Vincent drive into the Plaza in a 1991 solid white, blue ragtop Caddy. He bought it at an auction for $400. Clean as it wants to be, but he doesn’t drive to the Plaza any more. Cost him.
He doesn’t make more than $100 during the week. But Saturdays and Sundays he can collect as much as $250 to $300 in a 12-hour day. Enough to pay his rent. When he averages it out he guesses he makes a decent hourly wage panhandling. Still, he’d take a job if one came along. Sitting on a bucket all day, hard on his back. He’s supposed to be at least 75 feet from bus stops and four feet from stores. He’s not to lean against trash receptacles, but the security people give him slack.
“I got my kids to take care of,” Girl says. “I can’t be messing with you.”
“We on that again?”
“The Lord will take care of them.”
“And the Devil’ll send them to prison.”
Vincent did time 20 years ago. Two years and four months in a Texas county jail followed by three days in the Fort Worth penitentiary. He still knows his number; 31433-R. His sister’s boyfriend shot her and Vincent took umbrage and shot him. The prosecutor broke it down to involuntary manslaughter and a crime of passion. When he was released, the state gave him $150. Vincent stole a car and drove to Kansas City to reunite with a daughter he fathered when he was ripping and running in the streets at all of about 15. Way too young to be a daddy, he admits. His daughter’s a nurse now.
“How you doing?” a man asks Vincent.
He puts a dollar bill in his cup.
“Blessed, how’re you?”
“Off to lunch.”
“I’ll take that lunch if you have any left over when you’re finished.”
“I don’t know if I will,” the man says.
He walks away. Vincent brushes at his forehead. He would sure like out of this sun.
“I can be down here at 7,” Girl says.
“I get off at 5,” Vincent says. “You don’t come down by then, I’m leaving.”
“I can be down at 7. What do you drink?”
“Beer. $1.09 a can, $1.28 with tax.”
“The kind in red and blue cans.”
Girl leaves and Vincent watches her go. He might wait for her. Really, he would like to catch a bus home, stop off at the store for a beer now.
Let people judge. He ain’t as pretty as some and not as ugly as most. He’s not trying to be other than he who is. Come out here, see how easy it is. He holds out his cup — “Good afternoon. How’s your day?” — wonders if Girl’s crazy, wonders if she’s really coming back with some beer.