The rewards of my job at the bistro were to be found at the end of the evening, when I carried out a backpack full of baguettes, butter, and Styrofoam containers of soup. On my bike and out of the parking lot, I took a right down an alleyway, hardly three feet wide, between the aging brick buildings of Old Westport. The alley widened after fifty feet or so, and there, cloistered by the back sides of popular businesses in the trendy entertainment and shopping district, was an alcove in which a single wrought iron bench faced a narrow tree, both murkily lit by one sulfurous lamp. In those waning days of the summer of ’96, it was a favored place for homeless teens to loiter.
Melvin, Kim, Joe, Elise, Doc, Dave — I remember them all well, and at least the faces of so many more. Some had come to Kansas City with the intention of staying; others considered it only a temporary stopover on their way to Portland, that great indigent Mecca so renowned for its agreeable year-round weather and free public transportation. Their reasons for leaving home were as different as they themselves: a few sought escape, a few wanted adventure, and several had been on the streets so long they couldn’t even remember their parents’ faces or why they had left in the first place. Sometimes drugs played a part. Sometimes they didn’t. But every one of them had a story — travel stories like Dave’s, love stories like Elise and Joe’s, heartbreaking stories like Doc’s. How I came to know them was hardly a story at all, though, because they slept in my neighborhood, set up makeshift jewelry shops on the sidewalks, and spanged — begged for spare change — outside the coffee shops. I was merely one of the few who chose to stop and talk, or at least smile and say hello. The commonality of age, for most were near mine, made me reach out in a way, where others might turn their heads. Gradually, as I came to know them, where they stayed and what they did with their time, I began taking them leftover food from work.
I coasted along the bricks, keeping the bicycle straight in the darkness by equilibrium alone, and braked as I entered the light, welcomed by a cluster of smiling faces. Even before I could dismount, Kim was always on her feet and at me with a fierce hug, her soft fuzz of hair smelling lightly of sweat and sandalwood oil.
“Byron!” she’d sigh, as if it had been longer than a day since we saw each other last. Hugging her back, I did my best to keep from falling backwards and crushing the food on my back.
“Hey, Sweets, how are you?”
“Okay, but I stink.”
“You smell fine,” I always told her. Still, some days I found ways to sneak her home so she could shower.
“What’s up, Working Man?” asked little Melvin from his corner. His voice was forever tired and creaky, belying his disturbing youth. The baggy jeans and long-sleeved tees did nothing to camouflage his bony frame. Often, he looked jaundiced, and I worried for his health.
“Hey, Melvin,” I said, and, although I knew his stock reply, I’d ask whether or not he was hungry.
“Nah,” he would answer dismissively, “I’m good.” That tiny, lazy smile and squinted gaze told me what I needed to know.
I leaned my bike against the wall and, setting down my bag, unpack the food. Everyone got a cup of soup and, more often than not, a couple of baguettes. There was always a little extra, just in case someone else happened to be there. Theirs was a transitory world, and people came and went as a matter of course. Certainly I was no exception: the kid with the job, sober and with a safe place to lay his head every night. My slacks and dress shoes clashed conspicuously with their patched hoodies and third-hand sneakers. It’s a wonder they allowed me into their circle at all. Yet there we were, five nights a week, ensconced in our halo of yellow light, in that secret nook between buildings — just seven or eight kids sharing a meal.