Just yesterday, a group of six or so tourists had filed out of the coffee shop chatting to each other about how good the espresso and cranberry scones were in this cute little shop. Someone suggested a group photo. A tall blond man with a Nikon looked around and spotted Al sitting by the shop.
“Hey man, um, d’you think you could, um, I mean, would’ja mind takin’ a picture of us?”
A shorter woman with excessively curly hair tugged at the blond man’s arm and said something, shooting suspicious looks at Al, who had to keep himself from smiling.
“What? It’s fine,” the blond man said to the curly woman before turning back to Al, “Would’ja mind? I’d be happy to pay ya.”
Al just nodded–he spoke as little as possible–as he rose from the sidewalk. He took the Nikon from the blond man, a little surprised at how light it was, and studied it while the group arranged themselves for the photo.
“It’s the button up there on the top, on the right,” the blond man said, already grinning. The curly lady watched Al intently. She looked wound up–ready to pounce–waiting, he guessed, to see if he’d run off with the camera. She couldn’t guess it was the last thing he wanted. He centered the group on the viewfinder screen and snapped a picture. They asked him to take one more. He did.
As the blond man took his camera back, he pressed a folded bill into Al’s fingers. Al mumbled his thanks, then glanced down at the bill. It was a crisp 20-dollar bill. He looked up quickly at the blond man, who was still grinning, sure the man had made a mistake.
“No, no,” the man started and clapped Al hard on the shoulder, “you get yourself somethin’ to eat, all right?” and he and his group walked away, looking for more of the “real” San Francisco.
Al watched them for a few minutes–they had already forgotten about him, pointing and talking–before resuming his seat by the café. He looked at the 20 again, shook his head, and guided it to the secret pocket he had sewn to the inside of his shirt pocket, where the bill nestled against two other 20-dollar bills and a 50.
Today Al found the 39th-street shelter looking sad and deserted from the outside. This was good news: no special breakfast or job fair going on this morning. He pushed open the glass door almost apologetically, hearing the clank of the cowbell attached to it.
Debbie looked up. She was a round woman of indeterminate age and perpetually sunny disposition despite her surroundings. She was light-skinned—more cream than coffee—with dainty freckles from her cheekbones to her eyelids and hair that sprung from her head in tiny tight ringlets.
She looked up from her crossword over her blue reading glasses as the bell rang, and her face exploded into a radiant smile.
“My main man Al! How you been, sugar? Haven’t seen you in a hot minute. Where you been hidin yaself? And when you gonna take me on that date?”
“Oh, you know,” Al replied, ducking and smiling, making tentative eye contact, then looking away, “been working so hard, can’t hardly seem to find the time for anything.”
“Well, you just let me know when you do find the time so I can tell that husband of mine I’m not cookin that night.”
“Will do, will do. Say, Miss Debbie, got a shower free?”
“Honey, you know I do for you.”
She handed him a key and offered to hold his bag—she knew how likely he was to get rolled back there too–but he explained it was his new clothes and thanked her but said he’d keep it. Al stuffed the shower key in his pocket and moved through the shelter, scoping the place and the people.