I used to be a stingy bastard. I still am, to be frank. Is frankness still acceptable in polite company? As a youth fresh out of high school, having sent my graduating class off with a scandalous valedictorian speech that was a little too frank for boomer parents, I set sail for San Francisco in my freewheeling 1980 Rabbit. That Rabbit was a beast to look at, but it ran, and it was easy enough to fix.
I was too stingy to buy anything newer. I was too stingy to pay for motels or diner food. I bought cans of Vienna sausages and ate them off toothpicks, along with whatever else I could spear: grapes! mushrooms! gherkins! I traveled down the coastline by day, wasting hours walking on beaches, and slept by night, the passenger seat cranked and flung back as far as it would go, and my legs cramped against the floorboard. I had a blanket and a pillow, and clean clothes for the morning. I was very particular about my clothes. This was something I could never get my wife to understand, which is why I fired her as my laundress within a week after we were living together. The professionals could clean and press the collars properly, for god’s sake. But that’s another story. The wife didn’t have much training in that area. She has her skills, and collars aren’t one of them.
I hung my shirts at night and let the sea air work out the wrinkles, and then did the best grooming I could manage once the glow of sun broke through the trees. As somebody who grew up swimming in the northern Pacific, I thought I could take early morning swims in the ocean. I did once or twice, but if you’ve never swum off the Washington or Oregon coastline, you won’t understand how frigid it can be first thing in the morning. Sixty degrees Fahrenheit seems a warm, distant memory come to think of it.
Long about Gold Beach, I ran out of steam. Literally. I couldn’t move on without a good breakfast of real food or a laundromat. Plus, the water pump was leaking. This stingy bastard rented a room for the night at one of those beach-front strip motels called the Americana or some such, the kind of place where the TV worked, but the maid didn’t. I made myself a peanut butter sandwich and ate an apple in anticipation of the Jerry’s diner I’d seen on the way in.
The next morning, I had an epiphany. It was an epiphany that stuck with me, and one that I understood better the older I was. There I sat, scarfing down ham, slugging down coffee and milk, when a filthy man dressed in his entire wardrobe, even though it was June, walked in the door and dropped a pile of filthy blankets and a military issue backpack near the restrooms.
“No way!” the waitress yelled with unnecessary force. “This is the third day. I’m going to call the cops if you drop your shit in here again.”
“I just want a cup of coffee to go,” the man said. He fumbled around in his pocket for change. “How much? Is this enough?”
“It’s $1.50. All you have here is $.85. So, no. No coffee to go.”
By that time, I was irritated with the yelling. Clearly, the woman wished to bring the restaurant patrons into her self-righteous bitchery. Maybe they were supposed to be her witnesses.
“For fuck’s sake, just give the guy a cup of coffee,” I said. I didn’t need to shout for my voice to carry. The high school dictators, Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Brown, realized that when they turned off my mic during my valedictory. It all came from the diaphragm.
“I can’t just give him coffee,” she retorted, but her voice went down a notch.
“He’s with me. Whatever he wants goes on my ticket,” I said. “Unless you’re into denying paying customers or hating on the homeless.”
“I just want a cup of coffee to go. I’m not with anyone,” the man said.
The waitress spun on her heels and grabbed the carafe from it’s burner. She sloshed it into a Styrofoam cup, then slammed the carafe back down with so much force I was surprised the glass didn’t break. She stuck a plastic lid on the cup.
“Coffee to go,” she said. “Now pick up your shit and go.”
People with bad tempers rattled me. Believe it or not, neither of my parents had bad tempers, not even my mom, who did whatever the hell she wanted to. I’m guessing that was why she was always so happy. My dad just wanted to keep the peace. God, my parents disgusted me. But people with bitchy temperaments bothered me more.
The man left his coffee on the counter while he slowly gathered up his things. He shrugged on his enormous green pack, picked up his blankets, and when everything was is in its proper place, he took hold of the cup.
He turned to me before he walked out the door. His eyes were bloodshot, but steady, and they bored into me. “You shouldn’t talk to ladies like that, especially ones that work as hard as she does,” he said. “And just so you know, my home is the world. I’m a natural man, and as a natural man, I have the right to pay for my own coffee and come and go as I please.”
When he plunked his change on the counter, he smiled at the waitress. “He’s just a kid. Cut him some slack. And thank you, ma’am. You have a nice day.”
“I’ll try. Tomorrow, leave your stuff outside. Nobody around here’s gonna steal it.”
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s all I have in the world.”
“I hear you,” she said, and she sighed heavily.
The dynamic between the waitress and the vagabond mystified me. Yeah, I said I had an epiphany, and I did. What you have to understand is the guy wasn’t unique in my eyes. He resembled all the shiftless men I regularly witnessed at the Greyhound bus station in my youth. We went there frequently, my dad and I, to pick up my mom after she’d taken off for who-knows-where, to visit friends or lovers; or to attend art fairs or polyamory conventions. I don’t know if there’s such a thing, but if there is, I can guarantee my mom’s been.
What struck me was this: I’d spent way too much of my life hating my mom. But, despite appearances, I realized she was like this man–a man I was willing to go to bat for. Like him, she didn’t have the same constraints as the rest of the human population. The world was her home. She was a natural woman, and she came and went at her own whim.
I didn’t stay long after I’d finished my breakfast. I had too much to think about. Somehow, I had become a natural man, too. My home was the world, or what I could reach of it by car. I wasn’t sure what it all meant yet, but some integral piece of me shifted that day. And I knew I had to move on as quickly as possible–as soon as I could get my clothes washed and a new water pump in my car.