Jack leaves for work at seven a.m. He gets coffee at the diner on 6th and East Elm. He takes it black with two sugars. It keeps him warm and awake. He cannot afford the prices at the trendy coffee shops and only once did he let someone buy him a latte. He didn’t think it tasted four dollars’ worth.
In front of the diner he sets up his pot and rings his bell and all day watches people rush by him, a Salvation Army Santa. He is a fifty-one year-old former aeronautical engineer but he hasn’t worked as that for almost three years. He had a job at Home Warehouse for nine months until they closed several stores. A few months later they had to give up the house.
A woman drops two quarters into the pot. Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas! he says. She smiles as if she had written a check for five hundred dollars. Smug. Her coat is fine camel hair wool and she wears a bright holly green cashmere scarf with matching gloves and hat. He suspects that she’ll be buying a laptop computer for her children for Christmas. She’ll get diamond earrings from her husband, or maybe a large sapphire ring. Claire, he remembered, preferred the pale blue of tanzanite.
He stamps his feet, he is cold, but the cold doesn’t cut into him quite as much anymore. Officer, he calls out, can you watch this for me for a minute? The policeman walks over but he won’t take the bell. Jack puts that on the ground just under the pot. He hurries into the diner, heads for the men’s room and relieves himself. He washes his hands and buys a coffee and buttered hard roll on his way out. Thank you, Officer, he says, and picks up the bell.
Every day three bankers walk by just after noon. They converse as they walk at a brisk pace, weaving around people who aren’t walking as quickly, or who stop to dig into a pocket for change. Each of the bankers looks Jack in the eye, still talking to each other, not missing a step nor a word. None of them ever throws a coin into the pot. Jack holds their stare with his own. You’re all assholes, it says but they don’t seem to care.
Merry Christmas to you too, Santa! says an unbelievably tiny old woman. She bites off a mitten and digs around in her purse to come up with three dollar bills that she drops into the pot. Cold today, she says, pulling the mitten back on over fingers blue not from cold but poor circulation, Jack thinks. He smiles at her, a smile a bit warped with shame.
As the afternoon loses its sunshine and the dusk sneaks in with its cold, Jack starts to pack up his gear. It has been a good day. He’s been given two coffees, a hot chocolate, a cup of soup and a rough mental count of about seventy-three dollars in the pot. He sighs and climbs the three flights up to his room at the Y, glad that he can at least now pay the rent.