Monday, December 1, 2014

Small Change

When I was in college there was this eccentric professor who walked up and down Nassau Street hunched over in an ancient trench coat, scanning the sidewalks for loose change.  Not the 'Beautiful Mind' mathematician-- this man taught 19th century European painting-- although in the 1970's there were all kinds of characters who lurked in university towns.  Anyway, it was rumored that he picked up an additional $4,000 a year from his activity.

The other night on the uptown A, a middle aged woman was nodding out, leaning forward-- small coins falling out of her pockets.  I made an effort to collect some of them, and put them on the seat.  Once or twice she startled, and brushed them off her coat like live bugs.  I couldn't help remembering the old blind beggar on our corner when my son was small… with his bucket and his German Shepherd, swaying back and forth like Stevie at the piano.  My son would collect pennies in a jar and bring them by on his little wagon.  The blind guy would feel around and ask him 'there ain't no quarters or nothin'? and my son would solemnly swear they were all pennies (he had no clue about value-- he loved Abraham Lincoln) and toddle off.

Last Saturday on my way to Chelsea, an unsmiling girl in a long dress was working the train-- a child in her arms, one on the way.  She had a sign explaining she'd lost her job, she had 2 kids, etc.  She stopped in front of every passenger and stared, brazenly.  So many people just looked through her, busy and rude with their earbuds or their phones.  I was down to a post-Thanksgiving $3 and change; I gave her the coins and she glared at me.  I glared back.  Something about using her kids as props-- it turns me off.  How many people pass us, every single day, and ask for something?  I usually give some recycled coins, even if this infuriates the ones that expect at the very least a dollar.

Plenty of nights after I had a baby I wondered where I'd get the day's food, how I'd split a banana 4 ways, how I never, ever got that child support check--- not even $100.  Ever.  How I could never fathom that somewhere in London an alcoholic journalist was obliterating the image of those tiny trusting newborn eyes that look for the first time.  That picture that no one ever gets-- because it is the supreme unphotographable intimacy.  Not just love and a permanent daily Valentine, but a contract.  I couldn't ask; I couldn't yell or whine or even write.  That little wrinkled brand-new serious face that has nothing in its experience but this dialogue of eyes.  It is yours-- maybe the only thing that ever really belonged to you-- your living poem, your perfect pearl that came from all the sandy edgy torment of this love, this marriage which you knew would be hard, but then came this, the final unfathomable riddle.

Money in the street… I was fierce and unrelenting.  There were days this got us through.  Tiny liquid assets-- lost and found change.

Before my friend Jeanne died, she told me every time I saw a dime on the street, it was her angel, giving me a wink.   Some weeks I need Jeanne.  I miss her wild beauty and her reckless behavior.  No one in my life is a 'bad influence' anymore.  But I keep my eyes peeled for coins in the street.  They are a sign-- luck-- a gift.

I woke up in the night, last night, as I often do-- with a song in my head, a poem on my tongue… and for a brief instant, as I reached for the pen and pad, I time-tripped and took a second or two to orient myself in the present:  post-Thanksgiving, kids back home in their own apartment-- my parental work done, more or less… and a line surfaced from Ann Lauterbach…something about remembering the hour but not the passage (sic).  And suddenly I felt this sense of mourning for all the lost poets, for their final hours when they realized that this was the final poem--- that all of the time they spent fretting over language, shopping, going for walks, pining for a great love-- regretting, drinking, eating and hanging out, smoking… making love…. oh, the hours and days and weeks and untiring months we spend with our hearts filled to capacity and entering a body which will have no relevance at the final moment of dying…all of this will not buy us the time to write another poem-- or even just one more line.

My friend called to tell me he is sleeping with a woman 25 years too young.  For her this will be an episode; for him it could be an epic sorrow, a small coin of life he will imbue with huge value, because he is older and the moments we have spent are tonnage against the dwindling number we have left.  And really, I tell him--- he is not just expecting but looking for the heart wreck because most of us have learned that we don't really feel our hearts until they are broken, the way we take our legs and hands for granted until we have an accident.  So a heartbreak is a reminder--- and the minutes that pass in sorrow are the long ones, and children would rather have 100 shiny pennies than one crumpled ugly old dollar.

On the street tonight I had my eyes peeled; I needed the angel to come, even though it is really only a dime, and it is we the poets and believers who light up the moments, who give these crumbs of life magic, these coins in the gutter sewage which under the night lamps sparkle like diamonds even though they might be nothing but a circle of spit.

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