A day on Interstate 80

The sweltering heat from the sun fumed down on Benjamin’s back. Sweat drenched his shirt, it clung to his chest, bringing a brief cooling relief against the humid air. His flesh, once light in pigment, now seared red to the touch like burning coals. Perspiration seeped out his pores and ran off him to the earth below; the ground swallowed it up eagerly, quenching its thirst for sheer seconds before it became parched once more. His stomach churned and twisted from hunger, triggering painful spasms and bouts of nausea. He stood for a long time, his feet ached and pricked at his arches; his arms grew heavy from holding a cardboard sign all day.

Please help! Homeless and hungry, the sign read in bold black letters. It followed up with a familiar saying from the good book; Love your neighbor as you love yourself. His pocket rattled with change as he walked up and down the exit ramp on Interstate 80. Today had been particularly hard, traffic was unsympathetic to him – it was like that sometimes. On better days, he would make enough to eat and have enough left over for a snack, or the occasional beer he enjoyed if the mood was right. But today, he appeared to be invisible to the fast-paced way of life.

A maroon colored Toyota Corolla was at the front of the line, waiting for the red light to turn green. Benjamin stood next to it, leaving him only minutes to work with. He approached the drivers-side window and tapped on it gently with a knuckle. A young woman in her twenties, eyes veiled behind designer shades, did her best to avoid the drifter. Another tap followed, he waved at her, making sure she noticed him. She observed his hands; filth invaded every crevice and fold, dirt clung under every fingernail. She recoiled at the thought of having her hand meeting his. She felt sick to her stomach, fixing her eyes on the knuckle impression left on the glass. She said nothing, shaking her head at him, rejecting his inquiry.

“Change?” he asked. The woman gestured no with her head, hoping that would be enough to disassociate herself from him. She ran her fingers awkwardly through her hair.

“Mam?” he pressed on. “Please mam, I’m awfully hungry. Anything you could spare would help me greatly!” He stared up at the light – still red – he hoped there would be enough time.  After giving him the silent treatment, he knocked on the glass with more urgency. She grew irritated, glancing up at the red light, cursing it for not turning quick enough.

“Mam?” he continued. The whirring of the motor dislodged the window from its frame, allowing the scorching heat to rush in and clash against the coolness of the A/C that blew inside.

“You don’t take NO for an answer, do you?” she said, impatiently. “If I wanted to give you something, anything, I would give it to you. If you’re in such need of money, why don’t you do what we all must do – get off your ass and get a job, you bum!” She pressed the lever on the door handle, the window began to rise again, cutting off the odor his body gave off. Before Benjamin could say anything, the light flashed green, and the tires of the Corolla jerked with excitement, thrusting itself forward, gaining acceleration and speeding off.

She disappeared. Benjamin couldn’t understand what he said or had done to deserve such hostility towards him. It wasn’t surprising, he’d heard it all before, but couldn’t help feeling hurt from it every single time. It was so disheartening, it felt like someone had ripped out the last bit of dignity he possessed. Being homeless was bad enough, being reminded of it by someone who had no idea of his suffering made it ten times worse.

A job? All that he could attain one. He had attempted it several times early on as a homeless person, but he soon found out no one would hire him. One time, three years back, he had inquired at a gas station about a position, pleading and explaining his situation to the store manager. It was met with negativity at the mere sight of him. Every attempt he made ended in similar fashion.

He smelled, and no matter how hard he tried to keep his hygiene in-tact, without a home or clean clothes, without running water or the necessities needed to be accepted in ‘society,’ he soon gave up on it altogether. Hunger mattered more than someone’s approval.  The world was a cruel place to those who survived on the streets. What the majority did not understand, was that not all homeless were lazy and waited around for a handout. Some were the victims of hard economic times. He used to have a normal life at one time, a family and kids with a home and a good job. But bad financial decisions hit him hard, causing him to lose everything. His marriage had fallen apart when things did not pan out, which eventually caused his wife to leave, taking the children with her.

This part of his life he chose to forget. It was the only thing he could not cope with; life on the streets was unforgiving to all that succumb to it. It weakened and crept into him, made him sick and crippled. Thoughts of suicide would rush through his mind under those conditions, and life is something he still cherished, regardless of his situation. It was easier being labeled a bum as the woman had referred to him. That he could manage, it was the lowest any insult could go – his demise could go no deeper. The light blinked red again, a new vehicle pulled up, an older man this time in a green pick-up. He lifted his sign and walked over to it, still feeling the sting.

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