There were signs of life stirring on the street now, even though the daily commute had not yet begun in earnest. Traffic was beginning to build on the gently warming tarmac and soon cars and taxis would be bumper to bumper. A loud crash from a building site across the road disturbed a flock of pigeons pecking crumbs from around the feet of a hollow faced homeless man. He held his head in his hands as they took off suddenly, almost flying directly into his face.
“No!” he shouted, pacing backwards and forwards in agitation.
“It’s ok George,” said another man scurrying over from across the street. But George didn’t appear to hear let alone comprehend. Instead he rounded on the builder who had just thrown the heavy piece of timber into a skip, frightening the birds away.
“You scared them!” he sputtered gripping his paper bag tightly. Completely unaware of what he was doing, he squeezed until his knuckles turned white, weakening the bag with sweat from his palms. Crumbs were trailing from a small tear in the corner and falling onto his battered sneakers. The builder looked up as he carelessly threw a pile of broken tiles in on top of the discarded lumber sending a cloud of dust into the air. It rose above him like a delusive halo, belying the fact that he obviously couldn’t care less.
“Piss off,” he said swaggering away. The black man from the shoeshine stall across the street stood beside George ready to intervene if things turned nasty.
“They won’t come back Jean. He frightened them away. They won’t come back,” said George sitting down on an up turned oil drum. He started to rock back and forth looking up into the cloudless sky just in case he was wrong. Jean placed an arm across George’s shoulder, in an effort to console him and quietly said,
“It’s ok. This happened the other week, remember? They always come back. Maybe not straight away but they will George. They know you’re their friend. ”
Tears began to streak through the grime on George’s face weaving their way through facial hair and salt and pepper stubble. The pitiful child man began to sniff. He couldn’t stand the thought of being alone, separated from his feathered friends.
“Look, until they come back why don’t you come and sit with me?” suggested Jean. “Come on. I could use some help on my stall.”
George tried to compose himself and followed Jean over to the stall. Just as they got there a denim clad street musician sat himself down casually offering his scuffed purple cowboy boots for Jean to clean.
“Howdy!” he said in a distinctive southern drawl.
“Can I do this one?” whispered George picking up a cloth.
“Sure,” said Jean without even a pause.
The musician sat eyeing George’s shabby clothing uneasily, unsure of whether or not he should stay. He examined his dusty boots turning them this way and that and then decided to run the risk. While George set about trying to raise a shine on his dubious footwear the cowboy cum guitarist leaned down to take his guitar from its case and began to strum a spirited song as though he was born to be a rock star
“That’s quite a talent you’ve got there,” commented Jean looking a little awestruck. The guitarist acknowledged his comment with a brief nod and tipped his hat at two girls who were glancing at him over their lightly bronzed shoulders. They flicked their hair giggling flirtatiously and the street musician smiled revealing a flash of a gold fillings.
“There!” said George standing back and admiring his handy work.
“You’ve finished?” said the musician looking down in disbelief. “There’s barely even a shine on them. I want to be able to see my face in these babies. I have a meeting with an agent in half an hour.”
“I’m not paying you for this,” he said getting up as though about to leave.
Jean reluctantly took over and finished the job, leaving George free to stand staring up into the sky.
“It’s ok,” he told George when the guitarist had gone. “You did a good job. That guy was probably just nervous what with his big meeting and all.”
About half an hour later the pigeons had returned to their usual place so George hastily said goodbye, crossing the road with childlike glee.
“I’m glad he’s gone,” said a man sitting down and opening a copy of the New York Times. He was one of Jean’s regular customers who rarely ever spoke. His eyes were grey and as sharp as his suit making it clear to Jean that this was a man of strong convictions, particularly concerning the homeless. Sensing his prejudicial character Jean smiled and set to work crouching like a monk at his feet. Some people liked to chat while he polished and buffed but others preferred to block out his presence, blissfully ignorant of anything not directly related to their own reality.
Jean had just about finished when the man’s mobile phone rang. Rolling his eyes he reached inside his pocket and answered it in an affected voice brimming with confidence and forced bonhomie.
“Of course Clive. And why not?” he laughed. “If we can get them on board too that will solve all our problems.”
For almost fifteen minutes he sat occupying the shoe shine seat blocking the way for any other customers who might have taken his place. During this time Jean busied himself tidying his stall. And that didn’t take very long because all it was, was a collection of brushes and various tins of polish all stored away in a self- contained barrow.
After fifteen minutes of saying nothing and watching at least three of his regulars walk on by Jean decided enough was enough. For Jean it wasn’t about the money. It was the sense of having failed people who relied upon him. Maybe going to work to work in dull or even dusty shoes wasn’t going to ruin their day but it gave Jean a sense of purpose to be able to fill a basic need and to help his fellowman.
“Can I do anything else for you sir?” asked Jean hoping the man would take the hint.
“Shh!” hissed the business man holding up a forefinger.
Eventually he curtailed the conversation and threw the money down on top of the barrow. Jean muttered his thanks and stood watching the handful of quarters and dimes spin round on the top. Jean made a dive for two of the coins that had rolled off and were heading straight for a storm drain, banging his elbow off the side walk in the process. Despite being the other side of fifty his reflexes were still surprisingly good, so he was able to snatch the coins away just before they fell through the bars. Smiling to himself, he lay on the concrete holding up the coins as though they were diamonds in the rough. Somewhere close by a phone began to ring again, blaring out the same annoying ring tone as before. Jean looked around for the business man assuming that he had returned but happily he was still making his way to work gripping his black Louis Vuitton briefcase as though it contained nuclear launch codes or the cure for cancer.
Following the direction of the ring tone Jean discovered that the man had left his three hundred dollar phone on the stall and now it was flashing and vibrating, calling out for his undivided attention. Just out of ear shot the man, had no chance of hearing it so without a second thought Jean left his stall in order to return it to its owner.
After he’d stopped him and handed over the phone there were no words of thanks offered or even a simple smile. All he got were twin salvos of contempt and utter mistrust shot above the top of his ultra-expensive Ray bans. Jean watched him go for few seconds wondering about his insular mind set. People like him abounded in the city. They were at lot like the pigeons just across the street, always ready to take flight whenever something looked poised to upset their perfectly ordered existence or they felt under threat from lives that followed completely different rules to their own.
“Hey Jean! That kid is wrecking your stand!” shouted Nai’lah. Nai’lah was a nice girl, a painter of sorts. The paving stones beneath her feet were her canvas and the street itself was her studio. There she sat from sunrise to sunset creating fanciful dreamscapes in chalk, expressing life’s essence through deftness of hand. Their bold vibrant colours shouted out to passers-by drawing them ever closer like bees in search of honey.
“Kid? What kid?” said Jean looking puzzled. Nai’lah pointed and he turned to find a Chinese boy of about ten pushing his barrow into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
“Can I help you?” he said rushing over to rescue his stand. The boy’s mother fixed him with an icy stare.
“We were about to leave you know.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jean bowing his head. “Do you need me to clean your shoes?”
“Not my shoes!” said the woman impatiently. “His.”
“Harvey! Sit down and let the man clean your shoes.” She said this as though they were allowing Jean an inestimable privilege.
“I don’t want to,” the boy protested. His sister stuck out her tongue from behind her mother’s back.
“If you like I let you play my harmonica,” said Jean taking it from his shirt pocket. Harvey reached out to grab it and sat down in the chair. But before he could play a single note his mother leaned across and snatched it from him.
“Don’t give him that filthy thing!” she complained handing it back as though it was deadly poison. Jean apologised and set to work, humming quietly to himself to break up the silence.
After they had left there was a brief lull during which Jean sat down and ate an apple which he polished briskly on his shirt. Afterwards he gave the core to Nai’lah’s old dog Jack, who’d wandered over from his sunny spot over by the phone booth and the two of them sat like a couple of old timers watching the world go by. Presently he took out his harmonica again gracing the world with a hymn his mother used to sing while the whole family worked side by side on the cotton plantation back in South Carolina.
“No wonder he loves you. You spoil him,” smiled Nai’lah looking up from her work. Her tiny elfin face was smudged with a profusion of pastel colours that were almost an exact mirror for her bohemian tie dyed dress. The scene was one of peace and contentment, each one in tune with the other. There was no pretence and no overwhelming desire to impress the other. They were just themselves and that was all that was needed.
The rest of the day continued in much the same vein, with people coming and going like cargo ships briefly putting into harbour. Eventually the sun began to sink behind the back drop of skyscrapers and corporate towers, its diminishing orangey glow reflected in the countless windows of the city. The streets were gradually beginning to empty so Nai’lah started to pack her things.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said giving him an affectionate hug. Her dog Jack offered him the canine equivalent and licked his hand excitedly.
“You certainly will,” laughed Jean tickling the thick fur on his neck. After they left Jean knew he should have been sad for he was going home to an empty two room flat and would likely see no one for many hours to come. But he was not.
He dwelt on the positive aspects of the day, the simple goodness that was extended to him and that he in turn could extend to others.
Sadly Nai’lah didn’t see him the next day. Or even the next day after that. Her dog, Jack lay patiently in his spot waiting for him to return and many of Jean’s regulars stopped by to ask Nai’lah where he was.
Two days later the police finally found his body on waste ground and the people of the street came by to pay their respects, laying flowers on the spot where he’d been knifed for his paltry takings. Flowers were also heaped up where his stall used to be, puzzling many of those that never got to know him and those that never took the time. One of those that stopped by was the business man who’d left his phone at Jean’s stall only a few days before.
Once he realised that the shoeshine man wasn’t coming back and that he had no one to buff his shoes he stood for a while wondering what he should do. After all they still needed cleaned. It never crossed his mind that he’d stopped by every day for the last two years and that he never even asked the man his name.
Stepping towards the mound of flowers he removed his Ray bans to examine one of the sad little bereavement cards attached. It was quite a long message and he hadn’t the time to spare, so his eyes skipped down to the last part which read;
“To Jean, we will miss your unassuming ways and happy, generous spirit. But most of all we will miss your deep sense of humanity and the ready smile that never failed.”
Replacing his sunglasses, the business man stood up and went on his way hoping to find another shoeshine man. It shouldn’t be too hard, he thought with an easy shrug, guys like him are ten a penny in this town.