The temperature aboveground was brutally frigid. Levi — who for the past two nights had been laid out on a bench inside a heated train car on the A, C, and E line — lowered his eyelids protectively over his retinas and climbed out into the low winter sun, stumbling onto the sidewalk and falling flat onto hard, cracked concrete. As he parted a line of pedestrians en route to their varying destinations, the message was clear: Levi was no longer worthy of a helping hand. He had fallen so far down the societal rungs that now — when he physically fell — people would scurry past him with wary, scowling faces.
But within Levi remained a characteristic advantage. It was an elderly homeless lady, one with bags for shoes and clothes embedded with a sundry collection of human excrement, who had made him privy to this advantageous characteristic: You may have fallen. And you will likely fall again. And again. But there are folks out there willing to help out an eighteen-year-old boy. Perhaps for selfish reasons. Or for the wrong reasons. But it is help nonetheless. Some days ago, that wise old lady — whose name he had never asked — had died while sprawled out on a dark blue bench of the antiquated C train. Previously shivering underneath torn, yellowed newspaper clippings, her body had suddenly stopped its cold convulsions; the ragged, irregular raise of her chest now a still relic of her discarded life.
It was early morning when she passed. Levi knew it was early morning because there were just two other passengers in the subway car — and neither were work commuters. One was a young woman dressed in wrinkled clothing, askew from a night of excess. The other was a small man, his thin lips parted wide and his head tilted back on his neck, drool spilling down the left corner of his weakly formed jaw. Like the rest of them, he was either coming back from a night out or an underground resident.
Levi had been living underneath the city’s sprawling structures for some months now — when the crisp, clean air of early fall had progressed into the chill of an approaching winter. The weeks before that he had tried living on the metal benches and pavement nooks above ground, experiencing the city as one large, open, and littered expanse — an expanse that had become his home after leaving the foster care system the day he turned eighteen. For his birthday, he was gifted a worn and torn old backpack. He filled the flimsy material with his meager belongings and left his most recent family without a proper parting. His foster parents simply stared at the TV screen as he stepped out of the house, indifferent to his presence as he was no longer a steady stream of nontaxable income.
And so—like many rolling in and out of an underfunded system — Levi had slipped through bureaucratic cracks, refusing to sign a form that would allow him to extend his care for an additional three years and failing to comply with any of the required ‘future plans’ steps rashly laid out for him. Since Levi’s overburdened case worker didn’t have the means, resources, or patience to direct him into adulthood, Levi left the system without a notable departure, allowing his case worker to place their focus on the few gems within the ranks — youth with some form of community and, perhaps, certain qualities that allowed them to fight through a tired and overrun system.
But Levi didn’t complain. With his first breath outside of what would forever be a stranger’s womb, already addicted to opiates, Levi was aware that life on earth was not pain free. And nor was it easy or fair. Since leaving the system a few months prior, Levi had met many homeless youths on the streets, kids from various cities and states, runaways who arrived at a derelict Pen Station under fictive pretenses and false promises. A majority of these individuals were legally children — hardly sixteen — and, from what Levi understood, their state programs were strictly ornamental — an idyllic structure with nothing inside of it, like an egg without its yoke and albumen: a shell without potential, just as society saw them.
As Levi slipped into the dark recesses of his mind, accessing the void of consciousness that arrives before a dreamless sleep, he was shaken awake by a strong hand with a firm grip. A man with a bright knit beanie — the white pompom illuminated by the low winter sun like the beam of a lighthouse — was pushing and pulling at his shoulder as he called out sir, a title of respect that, at eighteen, Levi was not accustomed to. With tired movements, Levi lifted his head and dragged his body backwards towards the cement façade of a corner bodega.
You passed out, sir.
Rather than respond, Levi hung his head in embarrassment, hoping that the man would leave him be.
You seem too young to pass out like that.
Levi lifted his head and — with the back of his hand — wiped his nose, which was dripping from the dry cold.
I’m old enough for you to be calling me sir.
The man leaned back and took off his glistening hat, giving Levi’s overwhelmed eyes the opportunity to focus.
How old are you? You can’t be much older than eighteen.
I’m eighteen. Eighteen exactly.
As I thought. Too young to pass out like that.
I’m not on anything. I’m clean.
I didn’t ask that.
Levi turned his head to the side and stared down at the sullied surface beneath him.
Are you a runaway?
I’ve never had a home to run away from.
So, you’re an orphan?
Levi lifted his gaze and — with the aim of being imposing — gave the man a glare of false confidence.
I was. But I’m eighteen. An adult. The streets are my home now.
The man kept his face stoically slack, but Levi could tell when a person’s insides were stirring. With a firm movement — persuasive in its slow sharpness — the man held out a clean, manicured hand. Levi placed his dirty, clammy hand inside the strangers and let himself be pulled to his feet.
Why don’t you let me take you out to eat?
That’s okay, sir.
You can call me Charles. And you?
Let me ask you something, Levi. When was the last time you had a proper meal?
I can’t remember.
So let me get you something to eat.
Levi cocked his head and studied the man before him. He looked youthful enough, somewhere in his mid-twenties. But — smooth skinned and dressed in spotless white sneakers, pressed slacks, and a red puffer jacket — the man had the type of appearance that could be both deceptively young and deceptively rich.
Are you rich, sir?
Are you rich, Charles?
Wealth is relative. But you could say I’m well off.
Okay, then. I will let you take me out.
Great. There’s a nice trattoria a few blocks away.
Without answering, the man pulled the knit beanie back over his head, obscuring his loose curls beneath the woolen fabric. Levi followed the bright beacon of fluff, keeping his eyes — which had adjusted to the winter glare — aligned above the heads of the afternoon crowd. When they arrived at the trattoria, which was essentially an upscale deli, Charles ushered Levi to the building’s entrance, where a menu with elegant typeface was displayed behind a glass rectangle. With an assertive hand gesture, Charles encouraged Levi to pick a meal. But the offerings were so extensive — and the menu’s script so embellished — that Levi merely stared at the lengthy list with a glint of hunger in his eyes.
Should I choose for you?
Levi responded to Charles with a shrug of his shoulders.
Have a seat outside. I’ll bring us some sandwiches.
Following the pointed slant of Charles’ index finger, Levi walked towards the tables neatly arranged against the building’s façade. At the far corner, he lowered his thighs onto a black and white striped bistro chair, embarrassed about his stink, but even more embarrassed to be found hovering over the edge of the chair or — even worse — covering it with the newspaper clippings crumpled at the bottom of his backpack. Folding his hands together, he leaned his head heavily on his forearms, but quickly realized that this stance would draw attention. Sitting upright, he studied the street crossing before him, watching as the white walking man blinked into a red hand — only for the red hand to revert back into a pixilated white figure seconds later.
At some point in the traffic light’s infinite sequence, Charles returned with two plastic bags and proceeded to empty the contents onto the iron table. He placed a bottle of water and a long, paper package in front of Levi before lowering himself onto the opposite chair.
I figured I couldn’t go wrong with a chicken parmigiana. I also got a focaccia pizza, some fried rice balls, and two chicken Caesar salads.
With a responsive nod, Levi grabbed the Poland Springs bottle, twisted off the cap, and took several large gulps. He then used the remaining water to clean his sullied hands. Without the help of soap, he rubbed hard at the dry dirt crusted within the lines of his palm. He then removed the sandwich from its paper packaging and — without shame or embarrassment — crudely tore at the tinfoil casing before taking a large, messy bite out of the overstuffed edge. Charles ate opposite him, taking composed bites of one of the salads, similarly unfazed by any sense of shame or embarrassment. When Levi finished the last of his sandwich, crumpling the tinfoil into a misshapen sphere, Charles gave an encouraging gesture at the rice balls. But Levi — who was trying to ration his hunger with restraint — merely relaxed into his chair.
This is much tastier than McDonalds.
You’re not a fan of fast food?
Charles seemed surprised by this response, a reaction that irked Levi.
Fast food is what I’ve grown up on. It’s all I’ve been offered, really. But it makes me feel like shit.
Levi watched as Charles picked up a rice ball and plopped it into his mouth. The curt reply troubled Levi, but he decided to hold that emotion in.
Do you want to know something?
While Charles chewed, the expressive glint within his eyes was both pensive and hesitant, as if he were about to express a repressed secret into the open.
I’ve never really struggled.
Levi laughed and succumbed to the allure of the fried rice balls.
How is that possible?
Charles shrugged, his gaze focused at his hands.
Do you think that’s why I’m like this and you’re like that?
I don’t know, sir.
Charles. But maybe that’s why you helped me out. You want an answer to that question.
Perhaps. Or it’s simply that I saw a young guy pass out on the sidewalk and felt compelled to help.
Levi eyed the man suspiciously.
I may be calling you sir out of habit, but you don’t look all that old yourself.
How old do you think I am?
I’m thirty-eight. Twenty years your senior.
Levi’s eyes narrowed with increased suspicion.
Don’t look at me like that. An easy life — and a quality skin care regimen — will keep you looking young.
Levi leaned away from the grinning man, his eyelids wide with perceived understanding.
Are you gay or something? Because I’m not into that.
To be honest, I prefer women. But I have been with a man once or twice.
Once or twice?
Three times, if you want the exact number.
Two different men.
Levi shifted uncomfortably in his seat, wary about the man’s intentions.
Look, I don’t have an ulterior motive here. I just have the means to help someone out. And did so for once.
Levi relaxed from his suspicious stupor and gave a weak smile.
So, I fell at the right time.
Charles leaned forward and chuckled, closing the space between them both physically and emotionally.
Sometimes the world works in that way.
Levi nodded his head in assent, but — having not been around long enough to have an opinion on how the world worked — was ambivalent towards that answer. Charles used the silence to cover his salad with a rounded plastic lid. He then proceeded to unwrap one of the hero-sized sandwiches, neatly covering the edge of the remaining half with the ripped tinfoil before sliding it back into the paper sleeve. The sandwich was thick with red peppers and a thin green vegetable that Levi couldn’t place. With his mouth wide open, Charles bit into the edge and carefully chewed, wiping the corners of his mouth with a paper napkin after he swallowed.
What is that green vegetable in your sandwich?
Not technically. More like turnip. It’s something Italians eat.
Are you Italian?
I am. Both sides. My mom was born in Italy. My dad was born in the Bronx. But his parents, my grandparents, were both Italian.
You don’t seem Italian, with that light colored hair and that name.
My mother thought a British sounding name would be better for my future prospects.
Isn’t Charles French?
Technically, it’s both English and French.
Is your last name Italian?
Well, your mom tried.
Charles laughed and looked Levi up and down before dabbing at his face with the napkin once again.
Are you trying to guess my ethnicity?
You caught me.
Levi leaned forward in interest.
And what do you think?
You know, you could be Italian.
What makes you think that?
Dark wavy hair. Tall thin build.
Are Italians tall?
Well, no. Maybe it’s a bias I have from my tall family. And the fashion that comes from there.
Levi nodded, a false nod indicating false comprehension.
It must be nice to know your lineage.
You may be right in that. But I’ve never felt connected to Italian culture. A bit fiery and hot for my taste — and with a penchant for drama.
Levi wasn’t close to any tight-knit, Italian families. But — having seen his fair share of mafia-themed movies and shows— he could understand Charles’ point.
What cultures do you like then?
I like the Nordic cultures. There is a practical, quiet determinism about them that I appreciate.
Levi looked Charles up and down before giving him an assenting nod.
Maybe your ancestors came from up north. It would explain your pale skin, blond hair, and tall, thick build.
Charles laughed and leaned forward, wrapping the remaining sandwich back within the tinfoil, reuniting it with the other half in the paper bag.
Like you, I may also be unaware of my ancestry.
Well, at least you know where your parents came from.
I am fortunate enough to know that.
Charles rose from the chair and brushed at his slacks.
Are you finished eating?
If I eat any more it might hurt my stomach.
Charles placed the remaining items into one of the plastic bags and threw the garbage in the other, along with the crumbs littering the table’s surface. With a grateful nod, Levi accepted the bag with the food remains, managing to stuff it into his ratted backpack. When he glanced back up, Charles was watching him with an inquisitive tilt to his head.
Do you like books?
Why do you ask that?
I’m heading to a nearby bookstore if you want to join.
Levi relaxed the suspicion in his eyes, but his instincts about the man were still wary.
Do you work?
I have a lenient schedule.
Levi nodded his head and rose from the table. When they exited onto the street corner, Charles dropped the trash into a bin and then proceeded to walk uptown. Levi followed obediently at his left side. As they stopped at a busy intersection, Levi decided to ask a question that was newly nagging at him.
What makes you think I like to read?
Charles sighed and hunched his shoulders, as if he was unsure of how to express himself.
How sensitive are you?
Levi looked at him questioningly.
You young people, you tend to be quite sensitive and reactionary.
Oh, I’m not like that. In fact, people like that annoy me.
Charles released the tension in his shoulders and gave a relaxed smile.
Well, hopefully you don’t get offended by this, but for someone who has spent their youth in the foster care system and is now living on the streets, you strike me as quite eloquent.
Levi narrowed his eyes at Charles, feeling both proud and hurt by what he said.
It does sting to hear you say that. But I can understand why you’d think such a thing.
Charles nodded his head brusquely before stepping down from the curb and crossing the street. They turned right, parting a group of pedestrians ceding questioning faces at the contrary pair.
So, I’m right in assuming that you read often?
I use to read a lot. Books were my escape from life. But I haven’t read since I’ve been on the streets.
You didn’t bring any books with you?
I didn’t have any books to bring with me.
Did you get your books from the library?
I haven’t been to a library in years.
I haven’t been in months. I don’t feel welcome inside public spaces at the moment.
Charles stopped at a corner, glancing up at the red hand and then to the side, giving Levi a sympathetic frown. It was the last look that Charles gave to Levi, and the last word spoken between them, until they arrived at the worn façade of the independent bookstore. Above the front door was a wooden plaque, and embedded within the textured surface was a name known to Levi. Advertising itself as a relic of the past, it was the last bookstore of its kind for miles, remaining in place despite the odds against it. Disregarding his shame of inside spaces, Levi followed Charles past the steel door. The woman behind the counter gave Charles a warm smile, but the corners of her mouth quickly turned downwards when Levi came into view. Without concealing her movements, she held her index and middle finger against her nostrils, a response Levi was now accustomed to. Charles ignored the shopkeeper’s greeting and led Levi towards the back corner of the room. At the shelves marked fiction, Charles rapidly scanned up and down the colorful spines. Towards the middle of the bottom row, he pulled out a red and black book.
Have you read this author before?
Levi took the book from Charles’ extended hand and studied the bold name displayed at the top of the paperback cover.
Do you like magical realism?
I love it.
Take this book then. And pick out a few others.
Charles left Levi at the back corner as he made his way to the new releases at the table by the shop’s entrance. Levi scanned the wooden planks for Dickens and Dostoevsky and picked up A Tale of Two Cities and Crime and Punishment. Tucking the paperbacks between his left elbow and flank, Levi walked towards the beginning of the fiction section and grabbed Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He tucked this book underneath his right arm, on top of the red and black book Charles had procured, and joined his new acquaintance at the front of the shop. As Levi approached, Charles lifted his gaze and studied the book spines tucked between Levi’s elbows and flanks.
What did you choose?
Angelou, Dickens, and Dostoevsky.
I’m a fan of the classics.
I can see that.
Charles glanced at his silver watch and then back at Levi’s arms before meeting his eyes.
Is there anything else you’d like?
No. This is more than enough.
Levi followed Charles to the register, where he placed the four books onto the wooden countertop. The woman picked up the corner of each book with evident repulsion, scanning the bar code gingerly with her fingertips. She placed the books in a paper bag and pushed the items towards Levi, a forced smile plastered onto her face. When she redirected her attention to Charles, her smile widened and the corners of her eyes wrinkled with authenticity.
I ordered a book last week. It should be under Cavalli. Charles Cavalli.
With brisk movements, the woman began typing on a coffee-stained keyboard. When she read the title out loud, she blushed and quickly turned towards a shelf behind her. Using her left hand, she pulled out a thin book with the sparse, sleek design common to the self-help genre and then returned to the computer. Without asking for the total cost, Charles procured a thick, black credit card from a sleek leather wallet and paid for the purchase. He then ushered Levi out the door, forgoing the woman’s offer of a paper bag.
I have to head out. You don’t happen to have a cell phone, do you?
No, I don’t.
Well, if you ever need me, I’m often around this area.
I’ll keep that in mind.
I’ll see you around then. Try to take care of yourself.
I’ll do my best.
Awkwardly — and with a sense of unresolved tension — Charles and Levi parted, walking in opposite directions. Charles, to a meeting or space where he was expected, and Levi, back to the heated confines of his underground home, where he was most accepted.
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