The cabin pressure shifted, such a familiar occurrence I didn’t bother looking up from my book. White noise filled the car, and the thrum of the train’s wheels was no longer muffled or distant, solely rumbling our asses—metal ground against metal with a square-ton immediacy. Then the side door closed, the outside hiss was again shut out, and everyone continued to ignore each other while the new arrival, who’d just shimmied over from another car, jingled the coins inside his paper cup and grinned.
“I know y’alls day been a long one. I’ve been working long myself—it ain’t no thing scraping together a crust and some coffee when you ugly.” The man made a hocus-pocus hand gesture in front of his pitted face. “But ugly folk gotta eat, too.”
Standing passengers, faces buried in their magazines and reports, shuffled out of his way as he advanced down the aisle. The initial charm of his spiel drifted as he filled the car with a pungent odor and shook his cup beneath our chins. On my way to meet a friend for dinner, I’d comprehended little of what I’d read while pondering which hearty course to begin with. Now I thought I might still manage a crisp salad, with a light dressing.
“Hey, I got some dough for ya,” someone cried.
“Much obliged, sir,” the beggar said, in the same carnival barker tone with which he’d introduced himself.
“Well, hold on…. I gotta get some value for my money, don’t I? Tell a joke.”
I peeked around my book, over at the beggar and a tall young guy whose attire had been trimmed to show off his many red and green tattoos.
“Sorry, my man, but I ain’t recalling any good jokes, at present,” the beggar said, still in good cheer. “But I’ll be sure to learn a dandy for next we’s on the same tug.”
“ Ah, come on! Everyone knows a joke. Tell me one.”
The beggar shuffled his feet while those reading paused on the same crude yet common word.
“Oh, I see. Got nothing appropriate with ladies being ‘round. I getcha, Hank. Always the gentleman, aren’t you?” said young guy, winking.
The grin returned to the beggar’s lips, the cup swayed up a half-inch. “Yeah, they’s all bawdy as get out, I’m ‘fraid. Don’t wanna be makin’ nobody run off to no church middle of the week, eh?”
“Okay, okay,” continued the painted hipster. “Then I’ll tell you what. I’ll ask you a riddle, and if you get it right, I’ll give ya a dollar. Cool?”
The beggar rubbed the back of his neck while his cup undulated downward.
Young guy puffed out his chest and smirked mischievously. “All right. Let me think. What has a… No, wait. I mean, if a newspaper is read all over… No, shit, that’s the answer!” Chortling, the hipster waved his hands in front of the beggar and the bobbing cup. “No freebies, doc.”
The train halted and the doors opened. The automated voice announced the stop, and then the next as the train moved on. Young guy smacked his forehead. “Damnit, next one’s mine. Why can’t I think of any? I know tons. Ah, fuck it,” he grumbled, while digging into his manicured jeans. He pulled out a twenty and the beggars eyes lit up.
“Whoa, how’d you get in there? I thought it was a single,” chirped guy, while jamming the bill into his jacket’s inner pocket and burrowing back into his jeans. The thrum of the wheels slowed. The hand again resurfaced. In its palm sat a few chucks of copper and a nickel, which were flopped into the cup.
“Sorry, Hank, thought I had something more to give ya.” He slapped the beggar on the shoulder. “Get ya next time we bump. Cool, brotha?” The train stopped and the tattooed man hurried off.
The doors remained opened and a breeze offered some relief from the stench. Over the intercom the engineer announced that the train would be momentarily delayed. We looked at the beggar, who looked into his cup before lifting his head and looking back at us. He started for the doors, not noticing or caring about the few people slipping change and even dollars into his cup, which now hung by his side. Once on the platform he stopped. His back rose and fell a few times, and still the doors refused to close.