A surreal short story about the dark heart of a city.

Epistemic status: Inspired by real events.

The plaza was a black hole cut into a screen of glass and light. One may have expected the surrounding skyscrapers to provide some illumination, but they only served to make the eyes less photosensitive, intensifying the darkness. It may have been due to the same effect that the sky mirrored the plaza’s blackness. Life happened in a narrow band between the two opposing voids: nothing, two lanes of streets, a ring of buildings, then nothing again. I had left the drug store with a box of diapers under my arm. A smell of soap and candy had escaped with me into the winter night and was forming frail pink clouds when it met the air that was blowing from across the plaza at a temperature of absolute zero. My nostrils hurt.

“The cold makes you have different thoughts, you know?! The suffering. More existential thoughts.”

The man had wrapped himself in an old down jacket, a blanket, and a plastic tarp that looked like it had been taken from a truck and that was certainly supposed to protect him against the wind. Rubbing his bare fingers together for heat, he was squatting on the edge of the cobblestone-lined abyss that was the plaza. He had placed himself on a low railing that should keep people from stepping on the grass, if such a thing existed. His position had to be uncomfortable, which seemed even stranger due to the fact that he had put up his improvised camp next to an empty park bench.

A pair of legs passed by. — “Hello! Do you perhaps have 20 cents for a hot meal? Excuse me, do you maybe have some spare change for food?”

I would’ve ignored the man if not for his voice. An unusual voice for someone in his position. Calm and kind, it sounded as if he was inviting the people to give him money; as if it wasn’t his concern. His voice was neither desperate nor hopeful. If anything, he reminded me of someone distributing flyers. But no: those people were just doing it for the money. He addressed each person with what appeared to be genuine curiosity.

In front of himself, the man had placed a small red tablecloth with a large, Santa-shaped chocolate figure on it, facing his audience: Christmas decoration. I had been surprised by the paradox at first — begging for food with food right in front of him — but of course the man had just made a rational investment. You could buy these figures for 1-2 Euros if you knew where to look, and the decoration increased people’s attention and sympathy, which would in turn lead to higher revenue. I made the conservative estimate that the decoration convinces one more person per hour to donate and that the average donation is 50 cents. Given this, the man would only need to keep himself from eating the Santa for four hours to turn a profit; a day if we include the tablecloth, which can even be re-used or sold. It all made perfect sense.

“Do you maybe have 20 cents for a meal?”

I took a step closer. The man was young! Younger than me, in his late 20s perhaps. If we were living a decade ago or two, his thick beard would’ve concealed his age. But today and with his soft skin, my first association would’ve been hipster, though of course not in this particular context. I was wondering if there were any hipsters role-playing as homeless people. Is this what we call punks?

His beard was huge, though. With the hours he had to be sitting here each day, I imagined how his beard would slowly become impregnated with the fumes passing over from the drug store. Black Star, eau de parfum by Avril Lavigne. Better than most smells, I thought, but you’d quickly become sick of it.

“Excuse me, do you maybe have 20 cents for a warm meal? — That’s very kind of you, thank you very much!” It sounded like he was praising a well-behaving child.

Of course people were giving more than 20 cents. He was using a psychological mechanism called the anchoring effect: you ask for an amount so ridiculously small that the other person cannot reasonably say no. Then they give more by themselves and feel generous doing it. There had been a day when all the homeless people had started doing this and now you couldn’t go to the train station without being asked for 17 cents and a cigarette. How had they figured this out?! “The great strength of the human species is its ability for cultural evolution” — Was this a quote from somewhere?

An elevator was sliding down the surface of one of the surrounding buildings. Glass on glass, the mystical crystal of the corporate kingdom. I wondered why people built such outside elevators. Was the effort really worth the space it saved inside? I was sure the elevator’s motion down the building was absolutely silent, though of course it would’ve been impossible to hear from where I stood.

Inside the elevator, a young man was talking on his phone. His suit was form-fitting, perhaps tailor-made, though his age suggested a position where an expensive suit was not yet quite appropriate to wear. He was taking energetic, large steps up and down his crystal cell. Was he talking to his wife at home or to his boss back at the office? — or his lover maybe?

The view had to be amazing from up there. One would be able to see the whole halo that was the world, like how a rainbow appears as a complete ring when one is high enough up. The man paused and looked across the darkness. But he didn’t quite look: he couldn’t. Glass elevators have a special type of beauty that can only be appreciated in a certain way, a type of Orwellian doublethink. One needs to be aware of the beauty, but one must not be aware of one’s own appreciation of the beauty, since any self-reflection would reveal one’s childlike smallness as someone who actually cares about such petty things. The solution is to look through the beauty more than at it, hoping to absorb some of its blessing in passing. I wondered what other things were like that…

“I used to work in a bank, you know?! — Do you work for DMV?”

Of course he used to work in a bank. Every homeless man and his dog used to work in a bank in this town, and they will tell you everything about their fabulous past life if you ever have to wait at the bus station under the highway overpass.

But this was different. He had just given me proof that he told the truth. DMV was a small wealth management firm that had donated a number of face masks with their logo to various welfare institutions, among them a soup kitchen run by my mother-in-law. Of course, the reason behind this wasn’t mere philanthropy but the fact that firms pay high taxes on cash reserves in this country. Apparently, the company had considered the masks a profitable investment in its public image, and now 500 people on food stamps were walking around with their faces covered with the logo of a firm that would help them manage their enormous wealth: a broken shopping cart and a moldy bedroll. I had received one of the masks when I had been helping out at the kitchen once and had been wearing it on that day. The man had recognized the logo and named the company, something you wouldn’t be able to do without a history in the financial industry.

“I used to work in a bank, you know?!”

I suddenly realized that the man had been looking at me this entire time. His eyes were small and awake and deep blue. His expression reminded me of an old childhood photo of mine. In front of a blurry playground, an eight-year-old was looking directly into the camera. The boy wasn’t attempting a smile and he wasn’t surprised, either. He just looked, pure focus on the viewer: “Now tell me, what has become of you?” The question is innocent, but to an adult, it can only mean a challenge; it’s aggressive. My parents had hung the photo above the dinner table, and so I was staring at myself each time I visited them. It was uncomfortable. Just like the man, I didn’t blink.

The man was shivering. He curled up in his jacket-blanket-tarp cocoon a little more. It took him effort to keep eye contact.

“I used to work at a bank. But I was working, always working. At some point, I was sleeping in my car. But I was still working. I was gambling, too, you know?!” — “At the stock exchange, I mean,” he added, as if it was obvious.

“I’m sleeping in a garden shed now. I don’t have any heating. I use three sleeping bags on top of each other! But it’s still cold, always cold.”

This was a rich beggar! Who else can say they have a garden shed and three sleeping bags?!

“I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs. Many do but I don’t.” — I believed it.

“I wanna lead a different life now. A spiritual life. I’m reading the Bible! I don’t need a lot. I want to be left alone. I want to take my time. To change my thoughts. Think less. The cold helps me think less. — You need to take control of your thoughts!”

The man coughed. I instinctively took a step back and immediately felt sorry for it. This awful pandemic! — “The human desire for cleanliness corrupts us to the same degree as we understand its ultimate elusiveness.” I remembered a psychologist explain that Hitler had a pathological sense of hygiene.

A blonde fur coat passed us by; she was with friends. Among them a young man, perhaps in his early twenties. Lean physique, angular face. His curly black hair the same color as his woolen coat and his leather gloves. He could’ve been a fashion model advertising for one of those hip young brands. They might photograph him wearing a plain white t-shirt with that look on his face that said: “I do not understand the world, but I am confident enough to face it. Now isn’t that something?!” This was the look I saw, at least, when our eyes met, and a hint of doubt: “He belongs here, but do you, too?”

She showed him something on her phone. They laughed and I wondered how thick those coats were. They seemed to make them immune against the cold. As they disappeared towards the plaza, I thought to discern the man’s head turning back towards me. But perhaps this was just my imagination; you really couldn’t see much.

“I can’t stay here much longer. I need to leave soon,” the homeless man said.

“This world isn’t made for me. It’s too harsh. Too brutal. People are — I wanna go somewhere else. One year or two maybe, then I have to leave. Do you know any nice places in Spain?”

I suddenly remembered the box of diapers under my arm. Slightly shifting its weight, I felt an intense sensation of nothing, or less-than-nothing. I had been holding the box for so long that my nervous system had adapted to its weight. Now not having the box there was unusual enough to trigger a sensory signal.

I had been buying diapers! And my little one was home with Charlotte! They had to be waiting for me! — “Home…” I weighed the idea in my mind. Somewhere floating in the vacuum of space, beyond the halo, there was a window. A passing cosmonaut would see a room lit in warm yellow; books and light wood; a baby, just a couple months old, with its mother. The baby, eyes wide open, held high in its mother’s arms. In a brief cry, it is exclaiming the only thought it can: “This is here!” The mother in a colorful dress; young and beautiful, the warm light seems to emanate from her. Smiling, her eyes just as wide as her child’s, but more intentionally so, she utters the only reply appropriate: “Yes, you, my dear!”

Our cosmonaut may feel a hint of melancholy as he passes by the window. Soon he would return into the cold emptiness of space, further on his path dictated by Newton’s first law, mechanically, eternally. But to his surprise, he may find that this is not what happens. He may find a force act upon him. Not enough to stop him; not enough to keep him there, at the window, with the mother and the child. But enough to slow him down, just slightly, and slightly bend his path. And perhaps, our cosmonaut might think, this is enough. Enough for today.

It may have been due to the same effect why the box of diapers had felt so strange — or was it the cold? — that I found it surprisingly hard to move. There was a delay between will and action that projected my consciousness into a future where a certain motion had already been made. The plaza was calling me. Time flowed backwards as physical reality caught up with my extrapolated perception.

I felt my fingers take a coin from my wallet place it into the man’s paper cup.

“Oh that’s very kind of you, thank you very much!” — I felt generous.

My legs began to walk towards the plaza. I disappeared into the darkness.

Related / Influences:

  • I first met the image of the cosmonaut in a video by Abigail Thorn back when she was still Oliver Thorn, of Philosophy Tube. I forgot which video it was; if you happen to know, I’d be very grateful for a message.