Corinne Purtill

Every day after two p.m. but no later than two-fifteen the man approaches the bench from the west and sits down. His uniform daily is the same: a pair of brown oxfords, scuffed at the toes; a pair of boxer shorts in a small print, which upon closer inspection reveals itself to be tiny monkeys eating bananas; a white undershirt; and a suede jacket with sleeves of faux, Yeti-like fur. He sits on the bench, waits for exactly forty-two minutes, says "Fuck you, Terrence" out loud to no one and then gets up and leaves.

Kevin notices him. It's his job to notice things – well, not his actual job, for which he receives a paycheck. That comes from a cloying coffee shop franchise that markets itself as the anti-really BIG coffee shop franchise, in a desperate attempt to claim a small fraction of the bigger guy's market share. That is Kevin's job; his vocation is music. To Kevin, noticing – along with being, embracing and a host of other unmodified gerunds – is what separates the craftsman from the tradesman, the diamonds from the coal, the Arcade Fire from The Wallflowers.

As an artist Kevin is obliged only to notice things that pertain to Humanity and its Discontents. Things that do not fall into this category include: his mother's birthday; his roommate's name Sharpied on the box of Special K he finished that morning; his girlfriend's voice mails, text messages and eventual silence when a jam session with his band, the Finger Prisons, runs right through the dinner he promised.

Kevin had been working at the shop five days a week for four weeks when he first noticed Boxers, as he later christened him; and though by that time Boxers had appeared at that window exactly sixteen times in the course of Kevin's employment (Sundays he worked nights) to Kevin it was as though the man was born in his window. When Boxers appeared the next time (actually the fourth time since Kevin first saw him, but whatever) he felt a pleasant twinge of familiarity, and when it happened a third time Kevin took the notebook he kept in his pocket for lyrics and with the pen he used for customers' names on cups wrote in block letters "COAT – COLD – ALONE/NO HOME?? NO PANTS/ENTRANCE." Kevin's notebooks were filled with such jottings, the loose hairs of genius. Soon he came to look forward to Boxers' visits to the bench and their comforting rhythms. More pages of notebooks filled. He came to think of Boxers as his muse, the inspiration of an artist who drew on the energy of this city and its characters. It was this spark, this connection, that was the tenuous barrier between the dead-inside employees of corporate America and the people like him, who just had to dress that way sometimes.  

"He's gotta go," the manager says.

Kevin looks up from his Blender. "Who?"

"Him. Captain Underpants," she says, nodding at the window toward Boxers. "He's freaking people out. Kids are getting out of school right now, they're walking by. This isn't the only place in the city to freeze your dick on a bench. I need you to go take care of it, okay?" The aluminum door swings behind her; back she goes to her inventory.
This is not okay, Kevin thinks. I am not a guy who tells harmless crazy homeless guys to go somewhere else. Boxers has as much of a right to be on that bench as anyone, he thinks, righteousness welling in his heart. He opens the aluminum door to the manager's office.

"Take care of it," she says, without looking up from the order sheet.

Kevin hesitates.

"Unless you want Saturday nights," she says.

For a moment, staring at the top of her head, he allows himself to hate her completely.  Then he lets the aluminum door swing shut.

Outside, Boxers is watching the street, expectant.

"Hey," Kevin says. Boxers looks up, nods politely, returns gaze to street.

This feels worse than he thought. "Hey. Sir. I need . . . um . . . do you think you could find another place to go?" He sighs. "I need you to go. Somewhere else. I'm sorry."

Boxers looks alarmed.

"I can't go," he says. "What about Terrence? He said he'd be here today. I've got to wait for him. You don't understand."

"I'll tell him you were here," Kevin says gently.

"I don't need to talk to him! He's got my stuff! Can't you see I need my stuff?" Boxers pleads. Kevin averts his eyes, both out of shame and out of a desire to avoid the slightly widening gap in the monkey-banana shorts.

"I'm sorry," Kevin says. He means it. "You just have to go. I need you to go. If you don't go she's going to make me call someone," he says, wincing at how weak that sounds. "Please. Just find somewhere else to go, okay, man?"

Boxers is near tears. He rises to his feet, the imprint of the wooden slats pink and stripey on the backs of his thighs. He adjusts the coat with its matted, hoary sleeves, which to Kevin smells musty even from a few feet away.

"The hell with you," he says.

When he turns the corner Kevin slumps in the seat still warm from Boxers' doughy body. He looks down at the embroidered, smiling coffee cup on his apron, and for a moment he hates himself.

Sometimes it hurts to care, Kevin thinks.

Later that night the evening manager locks up the shop and leaves, nodding to the bum who settles gruffly each night onto Boxers' bench. As the man stows his collection of newspapers and bottle caps, his hand brushes something tucked under the bench. He pulls it out to investigate. Stuffed into a Duane Reade bag is a pair of tan slacks, a pressed button-down shirt, and a note scrawled on the back of a receipt that reads, "Oscar – Where are you? Sorry these so late. Need my coat back. Terrence."

Corinne Purtill is a writer and journalist working on a non-fiction book set in Cambodia. She lives in New York.

To link to this story directly:

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of randomaze.

Read CP's story, "Union Station," from the archive.

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