It wasn’t what I would call unseasonably cold, but then the season was mid-autumn and the afternoon wind along the river did cut the skin a bit. I kept my leather jacket zipped up all the way as I made my way back to the hotel with shopping bag in hand. Brisk, I might have said back home, or even chilly. Not winter yet, but you could feel it coming in the snap and shift of the air.
I crossed the last street before the hotel, keeping an eye on both the short-cycle light and the short-tempered traffic. Not that there was any particular reason for them to be short-tempered—it was a Sunday afternoon and there were hardly any cars on the bridges and roads that grid the downtown area—but I knew from experience that pedestrian intimidation was something of a sport for the locals, and I really didn’t feel like tempting fate, or at least somebody’s ideas about what constituted a bit of fun.
Having threaded through the small bunch of oncoming pedestrians and reached the relative safety of the sidewalk, I came upon a large man with two children in tow, all bundled against the cold in parkas and scarves and hats. He asked if I had a minute, and I immediately knew what was coming. Sure enough, it came out: the request for a dollar, some change, anything I could spare. I glanced at him, at the children, back at him. Something for bus fare, he said. They’d missed dinner at the Mission the night before, he said. Just a little help, anything I could do, he said.
How many times had I heard this before? I gave the usual excuses about not having any cash, I only travel with credit cards, so sorry, had to go.
And went, the wind biting into my cheeks as I strode to the hotel’s front door, the overhead heater blowing a curtain of warmth across the entryway. Into the lobby. Into the elevator. Thirty floors into the air. And in my sight, still, the children looking at me. The boy of maybe eight, looking up at me curiously. The girl of six, peeping at me warily from behind the man’s bulk. Props? Accomplices?
Did it matter?
I stood at the counter of the lobby gift shop, stacks of nutrition bars in my hands. A bottle of water in the side pocket of the jacket I had yet to shed. An apple in the other. My credit card between two fingers, ready for the attendant to take.
Through the doors, into the cold wind under the canopy, the plastic shopping bag weighing down my hand. I reached the sidewalk and there they were on the same corner, looking like they were getting ready to cross the street. I caught the man’s eye, signaled him to wait. As I approached his face shifted, softened, something like relief warring with shame melding into a curiously childlike expression.
“God bless you,” he said to me, and I chose to believe that he meant it. The little boy smiled up at me, a tiny edge embedded in the corners of his mouth. The girl still peeped warily, maybe even more so now. The man and I were shaking hands, looking squarely at each other for a moment. I told him to make sure to get the kids to that Mission dinner. I could think of nothing else to say, because it was the only thing I was thinking. Get the kids fed, keep them as healthy as possible, no matter what else.
As I turned into the recessed, canopied area that sheltered the hotel’s front door, I glanced back at the street corner. The three of them were waiting to cross toward the small park to the north, the gift shop’s white bag ludicrously small in the big man’s hands, and then they were occluded by the building’s corner. I walked back through the wall of warm air, into the dim lobby and out of the bright outdoors, thinking that there was every chance I’d been suckered, and knowing that it didn’t matter.