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Dennis and Me
A peach story
Over the years, Olympic-grade klutziness, carrying babies and children, dumpster diving, construction work, lugging huge rocks into the garden, pride, and the family motto “I can do it myself” have bent my body, specifically my hips, in such amazing directions that two mornings a week I hurry from my house to a small gym 12 block away. There, I meet up with Kyle, an amazing young man who knows how to sort of keep my mangled chassis running most of the time.
My route crosses 86th Street, a once-thriving shopping block now gutted by several pandemic-era foreclosures, including the much-loved Century 21 department store. Still, the street is an important bus and subway hub, and it remains busy with people commuting to work and school. Many fast food chains add to the bustle. This stretch of my morning journey requires pinball-like maneuvers around short-tempered commuters and ruckus kids and, increasingly, the homeless. There’s the old man wearing an army jacket in a wheelchair on the corner and the disabled man with a long-time prime location beside the once-thriving department store. A man with a large black and white pit bull lying beside him on a blanket is stationed outside Duane Reade with a sign that reads “please help to feed him or me or both of us.” An older Middle Eastern woman, sometimes towing a young child, wanders about desperate for help.
And then there is Dennis and his shopping cart piled high with his belongings, zooming down the sidewalk. No matter how hot the weather he wears a wool stocking hat, a thin down jacket, jeans and sneakers of revolving styles. He is thin, but not an unhealthy thin, in the realm of six feet, and his face belongs to a man who is anywhere between the mid-thirties and early fifties, although his graying beard puts him at the far end of those age groups. Generally, Dennis hustles along with purpose and only slows down to ask passersby for what he calls a maintenance donation.
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I try to keep a few dollars folded in my pocket to dispense as I maneuver along the street. Signs in the subway claim I shouldn’t do this because there’s a fist load of city social service agencies that are more beneficial to the homeless. No one believes this is true, not even the mayor and governor. In fact, nowhere across the country does it seem that there are any meaningful, let alone effective, solutions to homelessness on the table. A dollar contribution toward a Wendy’s hamburger doesn’t seem to me to hurt anyone.
Dennis pulled up beside me about four years ago and quietly asked for a maintenance donation. I said sure but had given my last dollar to the disabled man across the street so I dug out my wallet. All I had was a five dollar bill to give him. The smile on Dennis’s face was like a kid at Christmas.
“Are you sure?” he said.
“Sure,” I said and smiled. Honestly, I would have given him less if I had anything other than a five dollar bill. But, just as honestly, five dollars has never been better spent.
We stood for an awkward moment smiling at each other, neither of us knowing how to break away from this unexpected exchange.
Then he said, “Thank you for looking me in the eye. None of these people ever look at me.”
I didn’t know how this is possible. Then, again, I was pretty sure I was guilty, too, given that the nature of most transactions with the homeless are brief—change and dollars hurriedly dropped into buckets or boxes. A fleeting moment of feeling good devoid of human contact.
I asked him his name. Dennis. He asked me mine. Pat.
“Will you have a good day, today?” he asked.
“Hopefully. How about you?”
“Busy,” he said and started to push his cart away.
“I’ll see you, Dennis.”
“Bless you,” he said and continued walking until he got to the corner and looked back over his shoulder and waved. Then he and I continued on our way to wherever we were going next.
Whenever I saw Dennis afterwards, I would stop and give him a dollar or two and ask how he was. He never remembered my name and seemed justly a little paranoid that I knew his. I’d remind him that we met before and then he’d smile one of his smiles and believe me. If it was a downpour or freezing or a holiday, I’d ask him if he had a place to go. I always panicked a little that he would say nowhere, and then I would have to come up with what to do next. Over the years there had been several fights about opening shelters in the neighborhood, so I knew there weren’t any around. Would I invite him home or help him find someplace else even though I didn’t have a clue how I’d do this? But he always said he was fine and had a place. Maybe there was family or friends in the area. In any case, I always chose to believe him because he always acted like he wanted me to.
On another day—and another new introduction—Dennis was headed my way home and I thought I’d tag along, curious about his destination. But he gave no indication that he would welcome my company and drove his cart too fast for me to catch up. A couple of blocks later I lost him among the mid-morning shoppers.
I couldn’t go to Kyle over the first year of the pandemic and saw Dennis only once that August sitting in a playground by my house. He was at one of the small concrete tables where people usually play chess, a distance from the children on the swings and jungle gym and the parents or caretakers congregated on park benches. His shopping cart was parked right against the table. Dennis was slowly eating a peach when I walked up to him and yet again introduced myself. He welcomed me when I took the bench across from him.
“Isn’t this nice,” he said with a smile. The table was sheltered under a sycamore tree, providing a respite from the day’s dry heat. He took three more peaches from his lap, lined them up between us then gently pushed one toward me.
“Would you like one?”
A freshly picked ripe peach eaten under the shade of a sycamore tree on a hot August day is a sharp reminder that there is unsurpassed beauty in the world. Such a powerfully simple joy, perfumed, sweet, and luscious. It is a breach of nature to speak while eating such a miracle, and so Dennis and I didn’t while our chins and hands grew sticky with the last of the pulp and we sucked the juice lingering among the pits’ swirls.
We wiped our hands on our laps—his across his jeans, mine on my bare knees. Dennis looked back over his shoulder. “You can get some more from the tree down the street. They hang over the people’s fence.”
I thought about going down to pick some for home. I wanted to but not as much as I wanted to talk to Dennis. He was a little more disheveled, his down jacket smeared with a few spots. But he looked good, his beard neatly trimmed, his smile, as always, effulgent. I asked him if he was keeping safe in the pandemic. He said he didn’t know about that but he was good, anyway. I always felt that to ask more about himself would break something between us, that our friendship was based on knowing just enough about one another that we would enjoy a summer day eating a peach together.
“It’s nice sitting here,” I said.
“It is,” he said.
“Are you staying around here?”
By this time there were a few places open in nearby churches offering food and some rest. He didn’t reply.
Instead he gathered the two remaining peaches and gingerly nestled them in the folds of a towel on top of his cart. Then he stood up and said, “Well! I’ll see you, Pat.”
“I’ll see you, too, Dennis.”
He dropped his peach pit into a nearby trash can and angled his shopping cart away from the table. Off he went to wherever he was going.
It’s been a mild winter here and the homeless on 86th Street have increased at times. The other day a shape under a pile of blankets was tucked into one of the closed stores’ doorways. But I haven’t seen Dennis lately. Every time I go to Kyle I hope he’ll be on 86th Street pushing his shopping cart along the sidewalk.
By now, he will have forgotten my name, but all that is important is the joy of seeing his smile when we introduce ourselves again.