A Writing on the Net SO
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The Homeless
By Joe DiCarlo
Copyright 1972, Joe DiCarlo
A short story about the meeting of two men and their conversation about life.
It was a clear, cool autumn day and a young man stepped out of a hotel onto the Bowery. It had cost him a dollar to sleep on a cot in the long hall with about thirty other men.
He had got out early this morning, which he had to, and it was hardly yet dawn. At the foot of the stairs a man raised a bottle, a man who had obviously spent a night in the streets. The funny thing was that the man with the bottle smiled, but the young man thought it was a silly grin.
The young man walked up the Bowery to Houston Street and up past Houston to East Third Street to the Men's Shelter for breakfast. He got an egg and coffee and cereal.
He saw a young Negro with a guitar at one of the tables and thought he would like to get to know him, but he sat down by himself.
"Being," he thought. That was the heart of the matter. "Just being by itself."
He cracked his egg, ate up his cereal and drank his coffee.
If there were only some way to explain!
He would probably run into the young Negro at another meal, he thought as he left the kitchen.
Outside on the street he lit a cigarette and took some time to decide what to do. He had worked yesterday and still had about eight dollars in his pocket. He felt awfully straight standing there in front of the Men's Shelter, sober as a judge. A man in a long ragged overcoat asked him for a smoke.

Maybe he had been wrong about the whole thing, he thought.

The man who wanted the cigarette was raw-faced and timid, bleary-eyed but good-natured. The young man gave him his smoke and lit it for him. The man smiled, a smile of self-effacement and foolishness, but also of humility.

The young man decided to share his thoughts. He looked at his cigarette and then he said, "Did you ever wonder how there could ever be enough power, anywhere, to make something out of nothing? Or what kind of power that would be?"
The face of the other man became craggy and earnest. "You're talking about God,", he said.

"God?" the young man said. "No. Not really. I'm talking about the power to make something out of nothing."

The other man kept quiet as if he did not want to become too involved in such a conversation.

"Incredible," the young man said, still looking at his cigarette. Then he took a drag and looked up brightly.
"Don't pay any attention to me," he said. "Here, have another cigarette. Save one for later."

The young man had, indeed, been talking about God. But he did not want to scare the other man away. The other man took the second cigarette and then fixed his eyes on the younger man. Perhaps something had given him the courage to study the younger man. Through his grime and filth he looked at him. His eyes were watery, his lower lip was loose. He was spitting out paper that had stuck to his lip.

"Look, Chip," he said. "Thanks for the cigarette."

"Hell," the young man said. "What's a cigarette?"

"Yeah, a cigarette ain't much I guess," said the other man.
"I mean there's things more important than cigarettes, right?" said the young man.

"Hey Chip, I wanna ask you something," the other man said. "What are you doin' down here?"

The young man seemed to look inward, at the face of his own doubts.
"There's things more important than cigarettes," he said. "Right?"

"Hell, yeah," the other man said. "Look, Chip, can you spare some change?"

"Just cigarettes," the young man said. "You know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I know what you mean," the other man said.

"But it's not that simple, is it?" the young man said. "No, it's not," the other man said. "But I'll tell you one thing, Chip. Get out of this place."
The young man looked up sharply.

"I'm just trying to keep body and soul together," he
"Oh, that's rich," the other man said. "Look, Chip, you're not a preacher, are you?"

"No, I'm not."

"Because otherwise I'll keep my mouth shut," the other man said.

"No, I'm not a preacher."

"No, I don't think you are," the other man said. "You don't look like a preacher."

"Wha' do you call a preacher?" the young man said.
"Come again?"

"I say, wha' do you call a preacher?"

"A preacher? Hell, you know what a preacher is. Everybody knows what a preacher is."

"Well, I don't know what you mean by a preacher," the young man said. "But I'd like to ask you a question."

"Sure Chip."

"You think there'll be a nuclear war?"
"You mean with atomic bombs?"

"Hell, Chip, how should I know?"

"Well, did you ever think about it?"

"Do you ever pray?"
"Do I ever pray?."

"I thought you said you wasn't a preacher ...
"I'm not."

"Listen Chip, what difference does it make if I pray?"
The young man noticed the way the older man put the
emphasis on "I".

"Do you ever pray that there won't be a nuclear war?" the young man asked.

"Look, Chip, I guess I haven't thought about it much."
"I see," said the young man.

"Now don't get me wrong, Chip. I don't want no war with atom bombs, no more than nobody else. But down here we don't worry much about things like that."

The older man was looking at the young man with a look that asked for understanding. Then he said suddenly:

"You know what I think, Chip? I think there's going to be a bloody war and blow us all to hell! That's what I think."

"You could be right."

"Look Chip, what difference does it make for me?"
"Don't you care?"

"No, not really. I don't care if the whole world gets blowed up. It don't make no difference to me."

"I wonder if there's anybody that really cares anymore," said the young man.

"Do you care?" asked the older man.

"No, I guess I don't really care very much anymore now either."

"Oh, come on Chip," said the older man. "You don't really mean that!"
The great humility of the old alcoholic touched the young man deeply and he felt tears come to his eyes.

"You're all right," he said to the older man. "You're all right! Come on, I'll buy you a decent breakfast."

"You do care, don't you Chip?" said the old alcoholic.
"Care?" said the young man.

"Yeah. About what we was talkin' about?"

It seemed very important to the older man that the young man should care.

"Yeah, I care," said the young man. "When you put it that way!"