Nightly ramps, alleys and a pizza slice of life
Next time I’m standing in the corner of Elm Street, sharing a slice of meat lovers pizza and orange soda with a homeless man on a Friday night, talking about sports or family, or misstep that we have taken in life, I’m going to ask them if they have seen a greater willingness on the part of their fellow Mancunians to go a quarter of their way, or slip a dollar into a cup, since downtown pedestrian traffic has increased.
I’ve wondered about this a lot, for whatever reason, over the past couple of months. Not so much on foot traffic (that’s obvious), but more on the well-being of others. I do not know why. It might have something to do with the interaction I had with a homeless man I met who was sitting, cold and wet in a downtown alley one recent night, slumped against a brick wall draped in his only possessions.
My reasons for being in such an alley late at night are obvious. I love brick, I love black, and I love it dirty.
With my night comrades, we find that the alleys of the city center are a more favorable way to get to our destination. Our conversations seem to flourish in such a setting, one block from the lights and bustle of Elm Street. Delirious with enthusiasm, we prepare for the night by forgiving our vices for a few short hours.
Walking down the alley that night, three wide and two deep, I don’t know what made me walk away from the group and stand in front of this stranger in the street who looked beaten up. shit by life. I could barely see her face, which was tucked into her neck, trying to keep her cheeks warm from the cold drizzle.
Since my mother died, I don’t know, I have become limp. I feel everything. Everything touches me: the good, the bad and everything in between. I am a cushion of emotion. And when I saw this stranger, I had to engage with him for some reason. Again, I don’t know why. I had nothing to say, not much more than a few babble to offer.
Most weeks on Friday, I spoke to a hundred people and answered a hundred questions, then asked a hundred more. I did two radio shows and yelled at my son countless times to stop punching me in the throat. I really want to loosen my belt, get rid of the skin, and pour beer down my throat.
Do not talk. No mas.
But, the stranger was now looking at me with one eye sticking out of his coat collar, like he was saying, “Can I help you mate? Tell me you’re not going to ruin my life any more.
For a while, I just looked at the waterlogged stranger, who was over 40 but over 50, and then I finally said, “You wanna have a slice of pizza, man?” I had nothing else in the tank! It was like the first time I had a phone conversation with a teenage girl. I’m surprised I didn’t ask him if he brought his lunch to school or if he bought it.
His eyes lit up! Like a rabbit, the stranger jumped to his feet, shaking off the thick dew clinging to his ravaged coat. “Sure. I’ll go get some pizza.
We walked and talked down the aisle, got a feel for each other, and soon realized that neither of us had any intention of harming the other. After all, it was just a slice of pizza. Not exactly a date, but I got worse. We went to Torched and fled our way past the cool kids with beards and yoga muscles and thighs that enveloped “Bonfire,” a sweltering mass of millennia recovering with time.
We went to Torched and the setup was perfect. Open display cases presenting the different slices – vegetables, meatballs, sausages, all kinds of jive. The pie looked hot too, like it hadn’t been there for 2 p.m., mildly frustrating.
The stranger looked at me, as if he was saying: “And then?” as he stood in front of a waiter clutching a handful of grease-stained pizza peel. “Take a share, man.” I said. “Anything you want. I’m going with a widowmaker.
We ordered three slices of meat lover, two for him, one for me. I’m an unbearable lazy man, but I still had some beer to drink. Two slices would have killed my night. My friends had already turned to the Shaskeen, and I needed to reach them before the rooster crows midnight.
We turned to the fountain and I think I heard the stranger gasp slightly when I said, “Have a drink too.” You have one coming up. As if standing in front of a line of ladies at Bunny Ranch, the stranger’s eyes roamed the soft drink selections as if following a ball race around a roulette wheel.
“What can I get?” he asked me, never looking away from the handfuls of soda.
“Anything you want. I don’t care. I told her.” Mix them all up if you want. Shit. “
We went out and found an archway to stand under, and then we carved our slices. I asked him if I could take the first sip of the orange soda he had chosen. He handed it to me and said, “Sure. You bought it. Have it all. I took a big slug and gave him the drink back. “All yours, man. Too much sugar gives me gas.
With that, after chatting for a good 15 minutes like old pals, pizza grease soaking up what was left of strangers’ teeth, we said goodbye, probably never to see each other again. Or maybe several more times. Who knows how long this sweetness will last? But I had a rooster to catch, and it needed to get back to its place in the alley, or find a new place to dry off – one that preferably smelled of cheese and red sauce.
Red sauce and cheese. Who would have thought that a slice of pizza would mean so much to two overnight travelers, each going in opposite directions, but seeking the same thing. One man trying to fill her belly, the other trying to fill her soul.
Now I am hungry.