"Jernigan, do you remember Sharon?"
It was Greg on the line. In my Stable of Loyal Customers, he was a member in good standing. Greg's a hardworking guy employed by one of the many local breweries that have sprung up over the last few years. Apparently, sales of suds rise dramatically in the summer, so he's been regularly putting in 50- or even 60-hour weeks.
"Is she your friend who lives on Barlow?" I asked. "The real short girl?"
"Yup, that's the one. Could you pick her up and drive her to my place? She's in front of the Burlington food shelf. I'll pay for the ride."
Greg lives in one of Winooski's many public housing projects, a multistory building set aside for vets. Though we've never discussed it, I've assumed Greg was a vet because of: 1. his address, and 2. his occasional drinking at the VFW.
"Sure, I can do that. Is she ready now?"
"Yeah, she'll be waiting for you. Also, on the way over, could ya stop at Papa Frank's to pick up a to-go order? It's all paid for."
"Roger Wilco. I'll give you a jingle when we leave Papa Frank's so you can meet me by the door."
Sharon, all five feet of her, was standing at the curb when I pulled up to the corner of North Union and North Winooski. "How ya doing, Sharon?" I asked as she settled into the shotgun seat.
"I been better," she replied.
"Haven't we all?" I sympathized. "We're stopping at Papa Frank's for an order on the way over, so that's good news, right?"
"That is good. I could use a hearty meal."
From the times I've driven her, I've surmised that this woman has had a rocky life. I don't know the details; one can only imagine. But she's still standing, and that counts for something in this callous world.
As we eased to a red-light stop at the eastern end of Riverside Avenue, to our right a homeless man stood at the curb holding a sign. This is evidently a lucrative panhandling spot because, rain or shine, it seems someone is always stationed there. I'm torn about giving money to people begging on the street. Mostly I won't, but if my intuition speaks to me otherwise, I will.
I noticed Sharon gazing at the guy, as well. She said, "I picked up about $75 downtown earlier today."
At first, I was unclear what she meant, but then realized she was talking about panhandling. This took me aback and, in that moment, a bit of self-knowledge pinched me.
I saw that homeless folks, in my mind, were a separate breed: the redheaded stepchildren of the human family, the unwanted and neglected misfits. Seeing them this way, rather than as individual souls — in truth, my down-and-out brothers and sisters — allowed me to walk past them on the street with a closed mind and benumbed heart.
Sharon telling me about her panhandling awakened me to this dead zone in my consciousness. It was impossible for me to retroactively relegate her to the nameless, faceless category of "insignificant others." She was already a fully embodied individual to me, a person I knew and respected.
"Sharon, don't you have a job?" I asked.
"I was laid off a few months back, and I have to make rent," she explained. "I took a cleaning job at the Motel 6, but I won't get my first check for another two weeks. So, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."
We swung around the Winooski circle and I pulled in across from Papa Frank's. "Could you go in to get the food?" I asked. "I better remain in the car 'cause this ain't a legal spot."
Awaiting Sharon's return, the aroma emanating from the eatery was getting me high. I'm a big fan of Papa Frank's, a genuine community institution that's been open at this location since the early '80s. I mean, what's better than good, cheap Italian food?
My idea of heaven is a Barcalounger; a continuous loop of The Godfather, parts I and II, on a ginormous flat screen; and a red-sauce IV at the ready. (I would add Rosanna Arquette as my private nurse, but I don't want to be greedy.)
Sharon returned with the big bag of takeout, and I rang up Greg to let him know we'd be over in a jiffy. When we pulled up to the rear entrance, he wasn't down yet. Sharon got out to wait on a bench by the door. After five minutes and still no Greg, I asked her to give him a buzz and see what was what.
"It's going to voicemail," she reported. "That fucking guy — I bet he's been drinking and nodded out. I'm not paying for this ride, you know!"
"Relax, Sharon. I wouldn't dream of asking you. Greg's good for it — he'll pay me either now or later."
After five more minutes of crickets, I bid goodbye to Sharon and took off. Ten minutes after that, I heard from Greg.
"I found Sharon sitting in the back," he said, his voice rising in annoyance. "Where were you, man? I was waiting for you in the front. I got your money."
"Greg, my man — I always drop you in the back. You've told me that works better for you."
"Yeah, but for pick ups, it's the front."
How the heck was I supposed to know that? I thought, chuckling to myself. He said it like it was self-evident.
"Drop off back, pick up front — got it. Don't worry about the fare, Greg. I'll get it from you next time."
I'll give you three guesses what restaurant I would hit up later that evening. When the red sauce calls to me, I'm a goner.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.