One rainy evening in April as I headed through Philadelphia on the West Trenton local, a very large man bent over me and asked in a very small voice if he could sit next to me. “It’s only three stops,” he said.
I lifted my eyes to a meek and plaintive face. In his dingy gray and white sweats, the stranger called to mind a parade balloon of a downcast Mickey Mouse. He smelled like a Goodwill Store, basement-aged humanness on old clothes.
“Just as much your train as it is mine,” I replied, wondering if other passengers farther up in the car had refused him.
“That’s the way you see, and that’s the way I see it, but that’s not the way everyone sees it,” he said, settling in. Glancing at the school folder in my hands, he asked if I were a teacher.
I allowed that I was and began to feel relieved that we only had three stops together. It meant he’d be getting off at Elkins Park, way before me. His musty aroma made my nose twitch.
“I used to be a teacher, too,” he said. “Middle school industrial arts. But then I won a million dollars in the New York State lottery and quit my job.”
Startled, I turned to look at him more closely. He seemed to be in his upper forties. His shaggy, slightly curly, light-brown hair fringed the collar of his ragged sweatshirt, which was dappled by raindrops. His eyes were pigeon-feather gray, but focused. He needed a shave. His big meaty hands looked soft. Relating his good fortune, he sounded more regretful than boastful.
“You won a lottery. You’re lucky!” I said, trying to sound bouncy and cheerful. “And if you don’t have to work….” I let my voice trail off. With chatty strangers you should try to keep it light and positive. Well, with chatty strangers you should try not to chat. On the other hand, this man knew how to drop the bread crumbs of small talk, and I pecked them up like an eager bird. But why the vow of poverty, the street-person look? Outside of the rummage smell of his clothes and lack of barbering, he appeared clean. He enunciated clearly. He speech was educated.
“They don’t like me on this train,” he groused. Then he told me that the day before he fell into an argument with a conductor for trying to buy a ticket with a $100 bill. The conductor wanted to throw him off the train. My companion didn’t say how it ended. Probably not in his favor, but I rolled my eyes as if to say, Yeah, people and their rules. I guess he thought that, being rich, he could act like a jackass if he wanted to.
Still, he intrigued me. And only three stops.
“So after you quit work what did you do?”
“Not much. Watched a lot of TV. Did a little handyman work for neighbors.”
I imagined that he was good at handyman work, being a shop teacher. But the idleness, the TV watching made me sad.
“Right around that time my wife divorced me, and I went to live with my mom.”
I tilted my head in sympathy for the divorce and offered a hopeful nod for the mom move-in. The guy, I did not ask his name, had the air of being a very large son. I’ve read of the misfortunes of lucky people who won tens of millions, sometimes over one hundred million dollars, in lotteries. Most of them squandered it on cars, houses, boats, lavish gifts, bad investments, and went bankrupt in a matter of years. Some fell prey to con artists. Their spouses often left them. A few committed suicide, and some were even murdered. Others lapsed into alcoholism and drug use or gambled their winnings away, still addicted to chance.
“Then you won’t believe what happened to me.”
“One day I was changing a tire for an old lady by the side of the road, and a car came and ran me over.”
“Oh my God,” I gasped.
“I spent three years in the hospital.” At this point, the rain was sloshing down so hard that the train windows looked like the portholes of washing machines. Lightning illuminated the city, but in the torrent everything was out of focus.
“Three years!” What terrible luck, I thought. I didn’t know how you spent three years in a hospital unless there were many complications, readmissions, months in a rehab hospital. Maybe he spent two-and-a-half years in the hospital and rounded it up. He didn’t go into details. His story was as strange as truth, and so I believed him.
“Then, a few years after I got out of the hospital, I won an eight-million-dollar settlement.”
My expression froze in surprise. The guy was rich again. His good luck had returned. A poster for a personal injury law firm hung at the front of the train. My eyes darted to it, then returned to my companion. His hospital and medical bills, no doubt, sailed off the charts. Then pain, suffering, loss of income. Not that he was employed at the time of the accident. More likely, the accident had left him unable to hold down a job. In any case, the man had a way of winning cash.
Or did he? At the time, I didn’t stop to consider that he might have been luring me into conversation with made-up million-dollar stories and invented tales of disaster. He was one heck of a storyteller.
“Not long after I got the settlement,” he continued, “I was in the kitchen eating pancakes with my mom, and the doctor called. The doc said to my mom, are you sitting down?” I leaned in to catch every word. He was a very soft-spoken man. “So she sits down, and the doctor tells her that I have a neuroblastoma.” My companion shot me a very serious look. I didn’t know what a neuroblastoma was, but it sounded grave. Later that night, I looked it up and learned that it is a kind of nerve tissue cancer. In children, where it is most common, it often goes into remission, but in adults it is rarer and the prognosis is bad. Sitting there on the train, I didn’t need to know the natural history of the disease to understand that the pendulum of luck had once more swung against him. He spoke as a man not long for the world. “I don’t know why things happen like they do, but they do,” he said giving me a look like a sigh.
By this time, we had passed the second stop.
“So I guess you’re wondering what I do,” he said.
“I was wondering.”
“Every day I go to an ATM and take out a lot of cash. Hundreds of dollars. Then I go to the ghettoes of North Philadelphia or West Philadelphia, the food deserts. You know how many supermarkets they have there? About three. They have the bodegas, but the bodegas rip people off with their potato chips and packaged cookies and high prices. No fresh fruits or vegetables.” He was speaking from the ramparts now. The meekness and self-pity in his voice had fled; the pistons of righteousness powered his speech.
I hoped he’d have time to finish his story before his stop came up. The rain continued to sheet down, and I saw he had no umbrella.
“So every day I go to one of those supermarkets in the ghetto. I stand by the checkout, and I pay the tab for random shoppers.” He took a breath and looked at me for acknowledgment, to make sure that I knew that he was doing his part for a better world.
“You are helping so many people,” I said. I was in awe of this guerrilla philanthropist.
“You should see the looks on their faces. The smiles. The gratitude. Sometimes they come up and hug me.” A glow spread over his face.
I imagined the scene at the checkout aisle: people pushing carts laden with boxes of breakfast cereal and frozen waffles, packages of ground beef, chicken, bread, oranges, broccoli, milk, diapers, laundry soap. I imagined the guy standing by the cashier like a tree green with dollars, reaching out to the shoppers like the hand of good fortune. The lucky people fluttering around his leafy sheltering arms, their hearts light as birds, thanking him, wishing him God’s blessing, then flying off to their families to whom they would recount the story of the loony rich white man who bestowed upon them free food. I saw multitudes of instant friendships, bright and brief as struck matches.
Each dollar he gave was his lucky ticket, too. Each happy countenance lifted his soul with a fleeting bond of joy. Was I being too dour to compare the jolt he felt to the high a gambler feels before the die come to rest, to the lift the lottery player feels before the numbers are drawn? He was a dying man, and he was not buying cars or boats or taking around-the-world cruises or even purchasing decent clothing for himself. I wondered if he still had his mother, if he had anyone to shop for and cook for. His whole enterprise was noble, beautiful, and terribly sad.
Then his stop came up. I wished him well. He nodded slightly, then he shambled down the aisle, off the train, and into the stormy night.
I only saw him one more time, a week after our train ride. It was early in the evening as the West Trenton local pulled away from Temple University station. My companion, his charitable work, I supposed, done for the day, stood in the crowd, limping in the twilight, checking his old-fangled flip phone. I had the impression that he was trying to look busy, the way people do when they are self-conscious about having nowhere in particular to go, no one in particular to meet.
Weeks later, I began to suspect that the man suffered from some type of delusion or savior complex that involved charitable heroics. The episodes he recounted to me might have been stand-ins for other things. The lottery win and the big-money damages: were those really Social Security or SSI payments? The long post-accident hospitalization, perhaps a stay in a psychiatric hospital? The neuroblastoma, the diagnosis of a personality disorder?
What did seem real was his desire to help others. That is the part of his story I still believe. He may very well have visited the ATM for grocery-gifting cash. He might have doled out bits of his disability money to poor people and lived cheaply so that he would have enough to give away. If he saw himself as a savior, amen. It was not a bad thing. And his mission afforded him human contact, fleeting though it was.
The way the man’s luck went, I guessed that some future disaster or windfall—real or imagined—would strike him and that he would stay lonely, supplied with funds, and mostly good. The way the man’s soul went, I guessed that he would keep providing for needy strangers; he would keep lighting little flames of fellowship, which he would have to relight with new strangers again and again. Maybe he also hoped that someone would tell his tale. And that I have tried to do.
Poet, writer, and translator Lynn Levin is the author of four collections of poems: Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013); Fair Creatures of an Hour (Loonfeather Press, 2009), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry; Imaginarium (Loonfeather Press, 2005), a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award; and A Few Questions about Paradise (Loonfeather Press, 2000). She is the translator, from the Spanish, of Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales, and co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013). Lynn Levin’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, The Hopkins Review, Boulevard, Washington Square Review, Cimarron Review, Verse Daily, and on Garrison Keillor’s radio show The Writer’s Almanac. She has published essays in Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, Alimentum, and other places.