Burch (Part 1)

Today was the day.

Al opened his eyes. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining brightly and had already dispersed the early fog. It felt warm on his face. He blinked, adjusting his vision, but the scenery didn’t change. God he loved this spot. 

The warm stucco at his back pulled at his clothing and made a scratching sound as he shifted first one way then the other, bringing the rest of his body awake. Al bent one knee and then the other until he was sitting hunched, almost resting on his heels. He closed his eyes.

The coffee shop was a quaint place—not one of those chain deals—that looked like an old-fashioned, family-run business swallowed in the hustle-bustle of the big city. It was far enough away from the Embarcadero to retain its off-the-beaten-path charm but close enough to draw plenty of traffic. Tourists wandering around the side streets trying to get a view of the ‘real city’ were drawn by its large bay windows, green and white checkered tablecloths, and the old-timey penmanship that adorned the shop’s windows and cornices. A tourist trap in the perfect disguise of a non-tourist trap. That’s precisely why Al had chosen this spot.

Al had become a fixture at the cafe–its most regular regular–and he sometimes kidded to himself and others that the tourists came to see him as much as they came to see the coffee shop. They never asked him to move when they snapped pictures with their fancy cameras of all shapes and sizes. They thought they were capturing the “real” San Francisco, bums and all. The life of the city. He didn’t mind when they took his picture; it usually meant they would give him a buck or two if he asked.

​​This was one of the many ways Al earned a buck or two. He liked to vary his schedule. Some days he would bring pieces of colored sidewalk chalk and draw pictures on the cracked walkways around the café. Sometimes he brought a beat-up guitar he borrowed from one of his buddies and played tunes the whole day. Some days he just sat. 

Sometimes he asked for money. Sometimes, he just waited for it, amused to note that if he could make eye contact for more than ten seconds, hands dug in pockets, and the rattle of change or the crunch of a bill would make his day. 

Crying was a risky venture, but he pulled it out from time to time. It seemed to depend on the day whether a crying destitute man on the street would inspire pity, fear, or contempt. Of course, he got the range of these emotions every day, but it seemed to be more obvious on the crying days. Sometimes the hands dug deeper, and the rattle and crackle were heard more frequently. On other days he watched as wide-eyed mothers dragged their offspring to the opposite side of the street to avoid crossing his path. 

Some tourists and locals stared or pretended not to see him, and some snarled “get a job” or “quit your bitchin’” at him disdainfully as they passed. Some even faked a swift kick. 

The funny thing, at least to Al, was he really had nothing to cry about. It was simply a skill–like drawing or playing simple tunes on the guitar–he had cultivated over the years. He found it was easier than some of his other skills and, at least some days, far more lucrative. He would allow himself a small cackle when he counted the take on a particularly profitable crying day.

But today was not a crying day.

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