The 2001 Dodge Stratus stopped at the corner of 16th and Spring Garden, held back by a red light that jealously prevented anyone from simply driving unaffected through the intersection. Have somewhere to go? No. None of that here. You wait your turn here, sitting at the red light until it allowed you to go. Obey the red light. Reflect on life. Check the news. Check the time. Check the time again. Observe the city around you.
There were the swinging doors of the Irish bar as millennial workers came and went after work. There was the scent of the two pizza shops intertwined with the scent of the hot dog carts and food trucks a block away on 15th. A Philly PD was parked on the corner, cops inside grabbing a large pizza pie. Dogs walked their owners. Cars drove their drivers. A cup in the hand of a bum shook gently, begging for anything anyone could spare.
The red light held the old car at bay. Foster’s mind was drifting away in every direction it could with what happened, to include how the hell it even happened. No one listening to him, he thought. He warned Marcus and the other board officers that the numbers needed to be re-crunched. Foster had gone over the calculations in his head over and over, scrubbed the database inventory lists over and over, and inspected the spreadsheet formulas in constant repetition. Something about them all didn’t add up and Foster warned Marcus and the others that more time was needed. Warned them more than once. In the end, it wasn’t enough. The company was set to tank after the first quarterly report in its second fiscal year. Foster warned them, warned specifically that the expense numbers tied to the printing costs and on-hand inventory remained too high for the small marketing start-up.
It was all for nothing. The first quarter returns showed the reckless decision-making of Marcus and the board and when they came after Foster for it, it was over for him.
“What the fuck, Marcus? I warned you, I warned all of you. Something wasn’t right with the numbers, we needed to run them again!” Foster screamed. The windows heard him in the small corner conference room. The tables and chairs and conference phone heard him. The plants and doors and linoleum floors heard him. The pens and notepads seated before the board members heard him. But not the Board. They did not hear him.
“Foster, we’re sorry, I’m sorry, but this has to hang on someone and these were your fixes, your figures, this was your project. Now we’ve got to cut the team, and yes, we’re starting with you. We have to move on for the sake of the company.” Marcus couldn’t have been less indifferent to his old college buddy. The two of them started the business together, from an idea written on tissues, on an old wooden table carved with years of good ideas; two friends scheming in the corner of a dingy, smelly dive bar.
“Fuck you, Marcus. And fuck you guys, too,” Foster replied, giving the board his final verbal resignation.
The red light lasted forever, guarding the intersection. The old bum on the corner—the same old one who’s been there for months—guarded his coin can. Or rather, the can guarded him. Gave the old man purpose for months at a time out in the cold. Foster imagined the old man’s story. Imagined it was something spectacular that no one knew about or could have possibly believed.
Who was the old man really in the eyes of the world? Foster imagined the old man would leave the corner at night and travel off the main avenue four blocks back to his sleek, black CTS parked among the other neighborhood luxury cars. The old bum would pop the trunk and pull out a pair of Dockers pants and a Van Heusen button-down and change behind the car in the middle of the quiet street full of lavish townhomes. Once his black leather loafers were on, the old man would get in and drive off, far from the reaches of the city and out toward the Main Line and a town called Narberth. There he’d drive through the happy small-town Main Street, zig-zagging his way through side streets until reaching the gate of a large estate. The gate would open. He’d be home. A banker. A lawyer. A prestigious doctor. Something unimaginably larger than life. The bum gig for the old man would be a way for him to connect again. To feel like he was still a part of everyday humanity.
The bum wasn’t the only roll he’d play. In the summers he’d sneak in rides as a trash man in West Philly, doing pickups along Baltimore Avenue, around 54th Street. In the winters he’d rent a plow truck and clear snow from the streets along Port Richmond, Frankford, and Kensington. During the holiday season he’d volunteer at shelters, donating truckloads of food, visiting sick kids in hospitals, dressed up as Santa Claus. And when he forgot himself, when the old man started to feel like he was disconnected again and just not getting it, he’d throw on the old dirty bum outfit, pull on an old smelly coat that by now had his trunk living with its own foul funk, and he’d go follow the lead of the shaking coin can. The cling and clang of the coins. The ringing bell of the bar door. The beeping horns of the intersection.
The beeping horns. The light was green. Freedom at last. Cars were lined up impatiently behind Foster and the old Stratus. Foster’s mind came back to the real world. How could Marcus just throw me out like this, he thought? Foster sped up and away from the intersection. The can remained, shaking in the hands of an old man with a life unknown. Foster moved on, the old Stratus filled with whatever life debris he could fit in it. He wondered how long it would be before he, too, was shaking a can.