The tourists gave Carl a wide berth as he made his way down Greenwich past the park, but he was used to being ignored. They ignored him when he lost his job, they ignored him when he got sick and couldn’t pay his bills, they ignored him when the bank repossessed his house. Carl didn’t blame them; he had been one of them not so very long ago, afraid of the economy falling apart and wanting to keep every last dollar he had for himself. When you were afraid, you didn’t want to think about those who had already become casualties of the recession or about helping them out; at any moment you might become one of them, and you’d need whatever you had for yourself. It was short-sighted, but understandable.
Part of Carl was miserable, he knew that. He avoided looking at his reflection in the windows that he passed, knowing that he’d just start inspecting his clothes and hair again, trying to convince himself that his appearance wasn’t really as appalling as he felt it was. Instead, he tried to get outside of himself. It was a beautiful late summer morning in Manhattan, warm and dry; it was a gift, the best kind, no matter who you were. It was important to be able to let your mind roam free of your body, he’d decided. Otherwise you’d go crazy.
He smiled broadly. A woman pulled her children closer and scurried past.
Carl took a left onto Chambers Street; there was a restaurant at the end of the block where he used to eat, back before, and the morning waitress still set something aside for him sometimes. She didn’t let him sit inside, of course, but breakfast was breakfast.
But the restaurant wasn’t there when he got there.
Instead, there was an alley cutting down from Chambers to Warren Street. Carl looked around again, in case he’d somehow wound up on the wrong block, but no – there was the bank, there was the wine shop and the bookstore. The restaurant had simply gone, and this narrow street – an old sign at the corner called it Bishops Lane – was in its place.
Carl stood at the end of the alley and looked down its length. The whole thing was in shadow, with the sunlight on Warren Street a bright rectangle at the far end. It was littered with garbage, dumpsters lined up along its sides. “Where did you come from,” Carl muttered, and then regretted it. He had tried to avoid talking to himself.
He heard something – someone crying. Walking down a mysteriously appearing dark alley wasn’t a good idea, Carl knew. But he couldn’t ignore someone in trouble.
As soon as Carl stepped into the alley, a bitter cold seeped through his old coat. Sun must’ve been hotter than I thought, he mused. He looked up between the buildings; clouds obscured the sky. Pulling his collar tighter around his neck, Carl moved toward the weeping sound.
He found the source next to a dumpster, on a grate that leaked chlorine-scented steam. The kid looked to be about fourteen or fifteen, maybe a bit older; he was curled up against the grate, huddling for warmth. For some reason he was soaking wet.
Carl stopped several feet away. Helping was one thing, but you never wanted to get too close to someone you didn’t know.
“Hey, kid,” Carl said. “You, ah, you don’t want to be back here like this.”
The boy glared up at him through tears, shaking; Carl knew from experience that it wasn’t just the cold, it was also fear.
“I’m not going to hurt you. Look, you should go somewhere else. It’s a lot warmer out in the sun.”
The kid didn’t say anything, just kept shivering. He didn’t look like he’d been on the streets for long; he was clutching a backpack that seemed pretty new. Maybe he was just a runaway.
“It’s just, places like this aren’t safe,” Carl said. “Do you have a home? Someplace to go to?” The kid shook his head.
Carl sighed. The last thing he wanted was to get mixed up with an unattended minor. He knew what people tended to think when someone like him was around kids, and didn’t want any trouble. Carl started to back away, but said as he was leaving, “You shouldn’t be where no one can see you.” He remembered the name of the alley. “You, ah, should go to a church or something. Bad things can happen to a kid like you out here.”
“Too late,” the boy said.
Carl shrugged and turned away. He looked back just once as he reached the sunlit streets. It was hard to say with the sharp contrast in light, but it appeared that it was snowing in the alley.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 9.2]