WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Old man, look at my life …

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I was always having impromptu one-on-ones with panhandlers and ragged-looking old men dispensing advice. Always minding my own business, but they’d come up to me and say things like, “You’re going to be famous, I can tell.” My aura? I don’t know. Usually this was a line they used to get to the main theme, which was generally a plea for money.

This hasn’t happened a lot since I became a hermit.

One gentleman approached as I was sitting on a park bench and, after the line about how I would be famous one day (or similar) explained how he needed train fare and was only a few bucks shy. If I could just spare a little. I told him I was a student and didn’t have enough on hand to cover my own stuff. He persisted. I kept declining, politely. Then he got edgy and mean and said a few nasty things as he stalked away.

Only a couple of days later, I ran into the same guy on the street. He approached me with his conman’s grin, saying before he was within handshake distance, “You’re going to be famous one day” (or similar), then soon enough reprising his train fare story. I reminded him of our conversation, but he got a cloudy look in his eyes and shook his head. As he passed, I said I hoped he got his train fare soon.

They don’t like it when you expose them.

Another man in another city made no appeal for money, but he said (more of a direct quote), “You’ve got something about you, young man. You’re going to do great things, I can just see it.” He was in his seventies or eighties, so I thought maybe he’d seen enough in his life to know such things. But then he went into a quasi-religious speech that I didn’t quite understand, having to do with angels and prophecies of one kind or another, and I hated to think my fate was tied to some heavenly barrelhead bet. I was walking home from the grocery store with a heavy bag, so I thanked him for his observation and went on. “You’re a good boy!” he called to my back.

What was it about me that attracted these guys? Did I have “sucker” written on my forehead in invisible ink only they could read? Or were they like junk mailers, who try their script on everybody?

Then, in a setting I can’t quite remember anymore, a third man, easily in his eighties and dressed in a baggy brown suit, hailed me and launched into his own tale. He didn’t need train fare. He wasn’t a bus stop prophet. He just wanted to tell me about his tribulations, which seem to have taken him all over the world, culminating in a scenario in which he found himself stranded in the snow. He told me he thought he was going to die, and though he didn’t die he did get frostbite. I’ll never forget what he said as he left me, ending his story in such a way that I thought for sure it was a metaphor, and one that I could use in a novel that would propel me to the fame the earlier man had predicted. Everything was coming together in this one condensed statement, a message that I would be able to hammer into a universal theme and dramatize in a timeless tale of human struggle.

As the man walked away, he turned and said, “There’s no end to the pain of frostbite. No end to the pain.”

Well, I never was able to translate that testimony into a novel. It was like a profound thing you write down when you’re drunk. The next day it makes no sense and you feel kind of stupid.

But I did use the title I had in mind for the book: The Frostbitten Man. It’s the title of the novel that Sarah Phelan’s ex-husband writes in Occasional Soulmates. And though no such novel really exists, the synopsis, as told by Sarah, actually sounds like the book I’d like to have written, and it sounds pretty universal and timeless, and the movie would star Ralph Fiennes.

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11 comments on “Old man, look at my life …

  1. islandeditions
    January 30, 2017

    There’s a panhandler who sits outside a grocery store in the neighbourhood in Toronto where I grew up. He’s been selling pencils on that corner for years, and his line is to call out, “Hi Marilyn!” to every woman, and “Do you want to go to Hollywood?” He’s become known as “Mr. Hollywood” and author, Paul Quarrington, wrote and performed a song about him just before Paul died.

  2. John W. Howell
    January 30, 2017

    I had a guy hit me up for a dollar so he could get something to eat. This was outside the Carnegie Delli in NYC and I happen to have half a corned beef sandwich. I handed it to him. Called me a Mother f*#ker and threw the sandwich on the street. I wish he’d just said “no thanks” cause I could bearly afford the sandwich and it was going to be dinner. I remember the book in Occasional Soulmates and wanted to read it.

  3. pinklightsabre
    January 30, 2017

    Ha, what a great title … and the zig-zag route you took to get there!

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 30, 2017

      One can always borrow from Neil Young’s pouch of wisdom.

  4. S.K. Nicholls
    January 30, 2017

    So sorry, John. I had a similar experience. Man holding sign at street corner needed money for food. I gave him my lunch for work and watched him smash it into a trashcan from my rear-view. I still kept going to Lake Eola to pass out my cornbread cakes where they served soup to the homeless every Saturday…until the city made us stop.

  5. Thom Hickey
    February 10, 2017

    Reblogged this on The Immortal Jukebox.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 10, 2017

      Thanks for the reblog, Thom! You sent me gobs of traffic today.

  6. Don Ostertag
    February 10, 2017

    Many years ago, I walked out the theater stage door and was offered, by an old panhandler, a pair of sunglasses for a buck. I pulled a dollar out, held it up, and told him to keep the glasses. I pointed out that in the next block was a cafe where you could get a little soup and half a sandwich for a buck. He nodded his head disgustingly and reached for the buck. But I pulled it back and pointed across the parking lot to the bar. Just forget that cafe I suggested and go over to the bar. You can get a beer and a shot there for a buck. He quickly grabbed the money out of my hand, smiling and thanked me. When he went to open the back door of the bar, he stopped and waved a thank you back at me. I saved the old man the trouble of walking toward the cafe and then sneaking back to the bar.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 10, 2017

      That’s a great story, Don. It reminds us that we’re all reading each other pretty accurately but we like to go through certain rituals … Thanks for commenting!

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This entry was posted on January 30, 2017 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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