I was sitting there on the PATH train, minding my own business, immersing myself in some text, what used to be called reading, back before you needed a device upon which words like bugs crawl, when some croaker dangling a whipcord from his girdle comes my way, bragging on how he's found the Lord. "You wanna know peace, brother? Got to read the Book. That's what I did and look at me now." I stole a glance at him. He was wearing plaid pajama bottoms and a navy blue sweatshirt with white stains running down the front. There was metal shining in his mouth and snot shining on his upper lip. I turned my head away and stared at an Army recruitment poster behind the straphangers on the opposite side of the car. Have some fun in the Middle East, children, it implied. I did not want to look into this dude's eyes, aflame as they were with pentecostal fire.
"Now you not bein nice, brother. You wanna look at a man when he's talkin to you about the Lord." I turtled my exposed self into a carapace of pure indifference. More than anything, I wanted to be left alone. I'd had enough pronouncements from underground prophets to last a lifetime, these stern-faced sweaty hectorers making me nervous with all their loud chatter about Jesus and the end-times. Of course these are the end-times: I'm not gonna live forever, nor is anyone else among my contemporaries. So I was hoping this particular croaker'd buy the hint and shuffle off elsewhere, taking his schtick and cut leather with him. But no, instead he rattled on. "There's comin a fire that'll wipe you out. If you don't turn yourself around and call on the Lord, you'll burn forever."
I'm thinking, Johnny Fussypants, get outta here. You ain't been talking to the Lord. You've been using this malarkey to extract dough from guilt-ridden passersby. He stared and glared. His lower lip trembled, same with his legs. You talk about bad vibes. All of a sudden, his face muscles went slack and a smile began to take shape where a grimace had lain before. He reached into a big plastic Guy & Gallard bag, pulled out a faded plastic flower, and held it out to me. "Brother, you need to let a little love into your life. Take it." How come he was ignoring my cold shoulder? I didn't want his flower but I figured it'd be easier to take it than to resist. Maybe that way he'd move on to another mark. So I reached out and gently snatched the cheap thing out of his mitts. "Thank you. Here's a dollar for your trouble."
"What? You offering me money? This here's a gift, just like the gift of life. I don't want your money and neither does the Lord." Thus chastened, I put the buck back in my pocket and bowed my head, muttering, "Okay, that's cool. Thanks again. I sure appreciate your gift." I studied the plastic flower, an ersatz acrylic pink-and-white rose blossom stuck onto the nibbed end of a badly molded green stem. Such a sad gift. I knew that I was gonna throw it out when I got off the train. I looked up at the croaker and he looked back down at me. I asked myself, how come I attract people like this? Neither of us said another word. Maybe he was asking himself the same thing. After a spell, he took a deep breath, backed away, and took off down the car toward a group of students. I had my effin flower and a job to go to.
We came to 33rd Street, the last stop. When I reached the street, I put the flower in my shoulder bag instead of throwing it out. One of the guys hawking the Metro paper nodded at me as I passed. I had no idea what to believe.