Falling is easy. Getting back up is hard.
I woke with a sore neck and a horrible pain in my left side. Had I been sleeping in this position long enough for this much pain? It hardly seemed possible. My arms ached, so I raised myself slowly from the park bench. My eyes seemed to have been pasted shut, and my mouth tasted as though something had crawled in there and died during the night. Out here in the park, one can never know. I spit a few times, but I couldn’t exorcise that awful taste. After I got myself sitting fully upright, I rubbed the side of my face. I could feel dents in my cheek caused by the wooden slats of the bench.
I was surprised that traffic was so light, although it was broad daylight. Just a few cars, here and there. My left arm was asleep, but with some difficulty I can look at my watch: 5:30 in the morning. My gracious! I slept on a park bench all night! Well, that’s the last time I take the subway downtown for a midnight walk through the park! I must have gotten sleepy, and fallen asleep on this bench.
I must look like a mess!
I stretched a delicious stretch, and began to think things over. Best thing to do now was to get back home and slip into bed before Sylvia notices that I am gone. She had already gone to bed when I left, and she probably won’t even notice that I was gone if I get back promptly.
Gosh, did I need a shower! Even I couldn’t stand the stench.
I had a cramp in my leg! I walked it out eventually, but for the time being I had a limp. Maybe that’s why the lady in the red jacket stared at me so strangely when I wished her a good morning.
Six o’clock, and I’m on my way home.
I decided to duck into a fast food restaurant to wash my face and comb my hair in the rest room. Even though there were four cash registers, only one cashier was on duty. Two people were busily cleaning the grill, and another was mopping the floor. So I was grateful that the kid behind the cash register was the only person who saw me in my present state. Alarm flashed briefly over his face, but I smiled and waved (hoping to indicate my harmlessness), and ran straight into the men’s room. I closed the door and locked it.
I laughed when I saw myself in the mirror! Red stripes on my right cheek from the slats in the park bench, my hair was standing up on one side, and I had a black smudge on my nose! If I were a little younger, I could be a punk rocker. A very rich punk rocker, because I wouldn’t need to waste money on make-up. I happily sang a little tune as I scrubbed myself up—with “doo-dee-doo-dee-doo” because I forgot the words and didn’t care. Oh, what a hilarious thing has just happened to me! Imagine! A respectable man has a fight with his wife, goes for a walk in the park to clear his head, sits on a bench because he’s sleepy, and wakes up like this! I congratulated myself for finding a humorous side to my predicament.
There wasn’t any soap in the rest room, so the results of my efforts were somewhat imperfect. I scraped off what I could with wet paper towels, and the red marks on my face were already disappearing. I fumbled around for my comb; the final touch that would bring back some semblance of normalcy. It wasn’t in my shirt pocket, or in any of the pockets of my jacket. Could it be in my left pants pocket? No. I must have dropped it in the park; or maybe I never took it with me. No matter, I thought giddily, shrugging at my dirty face in the mirror, neatly combed hair would just clash with the new me!
It was at this point that someone started banging on the rest room door. “Hold your horses,” I called out, “I’ll be right out!” I hurriedly wiped up the sink, flushed the toilet, and wrestled with the doorknob until the door came open.
I started to mumble an apology to the person waiting outside, when I suddenly noticed that he wasn’t interested in the rest room at all, he was interested in me! It was a policeman! The restaurant manager stood behind him at a discrete distance.
“There are public rest rooms in the park,” the policeman informed me gruffly. He turned slightly to indicate the manager, “this man has supplied these rest rooms for the use of his customers.” Behind him, the manager nodded gravely.
“Yes, officer, I understand that,” I agreed courteously. “Would everything be okay if I became a customer?” The officer conceded my point with a nod, but the manager looked skeptical. They watched intently as I frisked myself for my wallet, but I came up empty-handed. I explained what happened, told them how I had come to spend the night in the park and tried to clean up before returning home. As for my wallet, there are three possible explanations: maybe I never took it with me, anticipating only a short walk; maybe I dropped it as I slept; or maybe someone filched it during the night. In any event, I apologized for any impropriety, and offered to be on my way.
“Not so fast,” the officer announced, “I’m afraid that I have to take you in for vagrancy!”
“What?” I asked in disbelief, “Why? How can you do that? I’m not a vagrant? I thought you just gave people a ticket for that!”
The manager and the policeman laughed derisively. “A ticket?” the policeman repeated sarcastically, “I suppose you’ll have your secretary issue us a check as soon as you get back to your office!”
“Why yes,” I said, my face growing red hot, “that’s what I had in mind.”
“Well, I don’t buy it,” the policeman announced. “You have no identification, no money, you are loitering on private property, and the owner of the property is filing a complaint.”
“I’m really sorry about this,” the manager apologized, wringing his hands, “but if I tolerate one, I have to tolerate all, and then my business will fail, and I’ll be on the streets myself!”
On the streets himself! I don’t live in the streets!
“What I am saying,” the policeman continued, “is that you are in violation of the city’s vagrancy ordinance. I have to take you in! Don’t tell me you haven’t been through this before!”
“Of course not!” I protested. I repeated my story to deaf ears. Finally, I remembered what cops do in television shows, and I decided to give it a try. “Don’t I have a right to make a phone call? One call to my wife will clear this all up!” I promised, and then shuddered as I realized what sort of argument would follow this sort of misadventure. The policeman grudgingly agreed over the protests of the restaurant manager. I really felt for that poor manager. His morning rush was about to begin, and he had an unpalatable spectacle going on right in his dining area!
I fumbled in my pockets for change, but I found none. Drat! Then I must have left my money at home. The store manager opened a cash register, extracted a quarter as if it were a tooth from his own mouth, and slammed the drawer shut with a chunk-ding! He slapped it in my palm. We all walked over to the pay phone (they still had a pay phone!), and I slid the quarter in the slot. They waited as if indulging a child or an idiot. I nervously punched the numbers. I had to try three times before I got the number right—when has such a mundane phone call had so much importance? The phone on the other end of the line began to ring.
The policeman grabbed the receiver. “Hello?” he said. He identified himself, and spoke briefly with the other party.
Sylvia, I whispered, please don’t let me down! Forget about last night!
“Sorry, fella,” the policeman said, leading me firmly by the arm. “The lady’s name is Anna, not Sylvia, and she’s never been married.”
My heart sank. “It was my daughter!” I sputtered, “That’s my daughter’s phone number. She’s always on the phone with her boyfriend. My wife’s phone isn't working.”
The policeman laughed hysterically. “It was his daughter!” he mocked, “That’s certainly original!” As we left the restaurant, he turned to me and said, “She also told me that nobody there is named Celia!”
“Celia?” I sputtered as he led me to a police car. “My wife’s name is Sylvia! My daughter is Anna!”
“Whatever the name is, we’ll just have to clear this all up at the station house, now won’t we?” he said, condescendingly.
It was about that time that a little black man came ambling up the sidewalk. He was obviously poor, but fastidiously clean; and he was humming what sounded like some sort of Caribbean tune. You know, the kind that needs steel drums in the background?
“Hello, officer,” he said, “busy already today?”
“Oh, hi Bobo!” the officer replied. I stood there with my mouth open. They talked as if they were old friends!
“I see that your day has started off with a bang,” said the little black man with the cute name. Then he and the officer got into an overly involved conversation about my misfortune. I was very impatient. Each time someone walked by, I looked down at the sidewalk. What if it were someone I knew? If I had to go through this unpleasantness, I certainly wanted to get it over with quickly. Instead, I had to stand there, publicly humiliated, while the policeman engaged in idle chatter with some passer-by. I chimed in here and there, in an effort to expedite things.
“Well, officer, I believe I can save you some work,” Bobo claimed.
“How’s that?” the officer inquired. He pushed his hat back to scratch his head.
“I know this fellow,” Bobo claimed, but he was lying. “This is Mr. Ed Philips; he’s a customer of ours at Chau’s Pet Store in the Prince George’s Plaza shopping mall.” Bobo turned towards me, “Isn’t that true, Ed?”
I stood there for a moment, uncertain what to do. My name is very definitely not ‘Ed Philips’—unless, of course, I had amnesia; but I was certain that I didn’t.
“Are you sure of this, Bobo?” the officer asked.
“Oh, I’m quite certain,” Bobo spoke like a xylophone, and smiled like one, too. “Ed here is always in the store with his wife—er—Ed, what’s your wife’s name again?”
“Sylvia,” I said, confused.
“Ah yes, Sylvia!” Bobo gleamed. “I don’t often forget a name, but somehow I managed this time. How is Sylvia doing?”
“Ah,” I stammered, struggling to figure out what was going on, “She’s okay. We had an argument last night. That’s why I went for a walk, and…”
“So that explains it!” Bobo exclaimed. He turned to the policeman and said, “Ed has a problem staying awake sometimes. He keeps falling asleep when he’s not supposed to. Isn’t that right, Ed?
It took me a moment to realize that ‘Ed’ was my name for the moment. I nodded.
“Well, you fellows seem to know each other quite well,” the officer announced grandly. He looked me straight in the eye and doffed his hat respectfully, “If Bobo can vouch for you as an upstanding member of the community, then I believe your story, and that means that you aren’t a vagrant after all. I guess I have to let you go!”
I couldn’t believe the turn of events, but I thanked the officer anyway. Then I absorbed his advice about getting cleaned up before I arrived home.
As we were walking down the sidewalk, Bobo gave me the subway fare home. The irony was not lost on me: I was accepting charity from a man whose annual income could only be a mere fraction of mine. He accompanied me to the subway station, chatting happily about whatever seemed to strike his fancy.
“Just a moment!” I demanded, as we came to the station. “Why did you do that? You don’t know who I am, and you certainly know that my name isn’t ‘Ed Philips.’ I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I am; I am deeply grateful. But why?”
“Fourth Morality,” he said, “back home, that’s what we call a kindness to strangers. You needed help.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It was obvious from the beginning that you are no bum. Your suit is too expensive and too freshly soiled,” he said, rubbing my lapel between his fingers for verification. “Street people get out of the habit of personal hygiene, and if the idea occurred to them to clean up, they wouldn’t try it in a place that would invite trouble. My friend the police officer is very observant; but he overlooked some overwhelmingly obvious clues.”
I was flabbergasted. This wise little man possessed extraordinary gifts of observation.
“Then, of course, there was your story,” he continued, “it rang true. I didn’t believe you could have invented it. The shelter for the homeless is crowded enough as it is, without you taking up space there.”
I begged him for his name and address so that I could repay his kindness.
“That’s not a good idea,” he said in a gently correcting tone. “If you repay my kindness with a kindness to me, our kindnesses will cancel each other out; there is no virtue in that.”
That left me completely baffled, and my face must have shown it.
“Let me demonstrate,” Bobo said, pulling his wallet out of his pants pocket. He unfolded it and pulled out a crisp dollar bill. “Suppose I give you this dollar,” he said. He grabbed my right hand and pressed the dollar into it.
“Please, I don’t need any more of your money,” I pleaded, “the subway fare is quite enough!”
“I said it was a demonstration,” he reminded me, “so give it back.” I returned the dollar bill. “Now,” he smiled, holding the dollar bill up for me to see, “did I perform an act of charity by giving you this dollar?”
“No!” I said impatiently, “Because I gave it right back to you!”
“That’s my point,” he said triumphantly. “If you repay me for my kindness, you rob me of my virtue.” He put the dollar back into his wallet and the wallet back into his pocket.
“But I have to do something,” I insisted.
“Then do a kindness for someone else,” Bobo suggested. “It’s not going to become a better world until people stop trying to break even on kindness!”
What a peculiar thing to say! I waved good-bye to my benefactor as I rode down the escalator into the subway station. I boarded a train, and off we went: three stops later, my life picked up where it had left off.
Now what did he mean by the Fourth Morality?