The man at the cafe wants to talk to me. But I have a play to write. He tries several times: "Are you writing a letter?"
"No, a play."
"Oh! A play! Geez, you know, I once knew a guy..."
"Excuse me, but I'm trying to work."
He has rheumy blue eyes, unshaven, white, grizzled chin, face too weathered for his age, (60?), eyes too blue and desperate.
I can feel him looking at me.
Moments later he tries again.
"Have you ever had anything on Broadway?"
"No. Look, I'm trying to work..."
I stare straight at the computer screen, willing him to move away, but the armchairs at this cafe are too comfortable. That's why I come here. I try to make the scene come alive inside my mind again, but his loneliness next to me is so loud. His clothes are old and wrinkled, baggy and sour. His sneakers are too black and white and brand-spanking-new.
Once every two months I volunteer with Project Homeless Connect. I spend five or six hours being gracious and helpful to homeless participants, whether they smell bad or not, whether they are drolling or lucid, personable or scary. I act like a decent human being.
Today I said no twice. Onceon Lakeshore, going to my bank, when a woman asked me for money. And then again just now.
Hypocrite? Or boundaries?
The guy catches the eye of the man in the chair on the other side of him, the man who is reading a book, but will lay it aside to talk. They talk and talk and talk, about the book, politics, God knows what else.
I squint furiously at the screen, trying to concentrate on the dialogue between my two characters. I could be home, drinking green tea from Japan that my sister gave me, listening to John Coltrane in the privacy of my own room, working on this scene. But home has the Internet, a dangerous distraction, and the phone, and the refrigerator. And dust bunnies. When I'm stalled in my writing, even the vaccuum cleaner starts to look attractive...
I take out The Waste Land and read it, to drown out the drone of the homeless man's monologue.
The barrista makes an espresso with a grinding roar.
The scene I'm trying to write takes place in a beauty salon; there's a chorus/cacophony of voices assaulting my main character as she struggles to give good haircuts, listen to her inner muse, and deal with her dying marriage.
When I look up again, the man who was trying to read a book has left. The other guy, the one I think is homeless but who may be just lonely, is reading the paper disconsolately. Or am I just imagining he'sdisconsolate?
I've got five pages done. Good. Home stretch.
Leaving, he takes way too long fumbling with his shoelaces and a battered plastic bag that looks as if it's spent a month or two out in the rain. His loneliness is palpable beside me, but he doesn't try anymore to penetrate the invisible wall I've erected to keep him away.
I return to writing my play about how language fails us when we try to connect.