scholastic national silver medalist!
here’s my story:
Twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. Billions upon billions of combinations. Yet fourteen of those letters managed to rearrange themselves into a coherent name, an identity, a person. Frank Byrnes.
Twenty-five times a day he would cross the intersection between Broadway and 116th, cardboard sign in hand, the word “PLEASE” etched in large, capital letters. He alternated corners every half hour, standing against the stoplight, watching cars and people pass by with hard eyes. He never pleaded vocally, never begged for money. He didn’t curse at the strangers who refused to look at him, nor did he violently thank those that thrust a dollar in his face. He took all money with a nod and a blank face.
Twenty-four hours in a single day spent collecting cans, standing at street corners, avoiding police officers, and searching the vast island that is Manhattan for somewhere to sleep. Some days, more time is spent searching for a dry patch of grass than sleeping on it. He liked the Columbia campus the best, as a sort of sadistic reminder of what could have been. It brings back memories of his senior year in high school, when he received acceptance into the prestigious institution. He was going to attend the school to be an engineer. But instead of following the dreary path laid out for him, he chose to follow his dream of being a musician. He knew he was goddamn talented, he knew he could make it, he was so sure of himself. But lady luck was not on his side. What with the economic crash, the plethora of trust fund babies paying their way into the music industry armed with auto-tune and an entourage, he didn’t make it, and instead tumbled into the abyss of failure.
Twenty-three holes in the maroon sweatshirt, purchased from the Salvation Army in exchange for the wrinkled dollar bill an elderly woman handed him. There were thirteen holes in the back, three on the left cuff, one on the right, and four at the fraying hem. The stretched material spent more time letting the cold in than it does keeping the body warm.
Twenty-two cans, packed in a plastic Target bag, stretching the material to the point of bursting. Each can had a refund value of 5 cents, making the total a little more than 1 dollar. This, combined with the few coins he found on the floor of the subway, would be enough for a hamburger, enough to satisfy a stomach ready to decompose muscle.
Twenty-one months spent living in Brooklyn, among the other aspiring artists. His home for those six hundred forty-seven days was at 47 North 4th street, in a cramped apartment with leaky faucets and creaky floorboards. That small space was the second thing to go after he lost his record contract with Island Records. The first being his fiancée, who claimed to love him, but really loved his potential fame and fortune. After the apartment was the car, and every last cent in the bank. Family refused to help, slamming down telephone receivers every time a call for help was placed. He was alone in the world.
Twenty drivers passed him by between the hours of 9 and 10, each one staring straight ahead, through a windshield speckled with bugs and mud. They refused to look, they always refuse to look, eyes merely sliding over him like the space that he occupied did not exist their world. He was nothing to them, just another failure who probably threw his life away with alcohol and substance abuse. They always assume that its his own fault; he is in this position because of his mistakes. They could never cope with the concept that their perfect society may be flawed. He is the flaw.
Nineteen people in line at Dorothy’s Kitchen, each one in tattered clothing, desperate for some type of lukewarm soup to warm their bellies. He stood at the end of the line, his beard matted and damp from the rain, the edges of his threadbare jeans dripping against the carpet. He waited patiently, mouth twisted shut, making no move to address anyone, even though the people surrounding him were in the exact same position.
Eighteen was the legal age to become an adult. You could buy porn and cigarettes; you could get into clubs and stay out past eleven without the fear of the police dragging you back to your house. Eighteen was the age that you could really start messing things up, out on your own, no parents under the obligation to help you out. You could make the monumental choice between a stable future as a quiet engineer, head bowed down beneath society, or to follow your passion and become a rock star, living a life on the edge. A lot of kids ended up on the streets at eighteen, already abusing the substances, already starting the miserable stage of their lives. He hated all eighteen-year-olds, for screwing up their lives almost intentionally.
Seventeen, he had been dating her since he was seventeen, since the beginning of senior year. They had worked well together, she the seller of merchandise, he the guitarist/vocalist of an up-and-coming band. They had plans, as most young lovers did, and spent nights gazing out towards the horizon and the limitlessness of their future. But then all of those plans vanished when she realized that he was never going to be famous and he realized that she didn’t love him, but the possibility of his fame.
Sixteen minutes spent eating 8 ounces of soup, slurping in each spoon-full with exact precision, savoring the salty taste on his tongue for seconds before swallowing it, letting the liquid sit in his belly before he dared to take another bite. He refused to eat quickly, to act like the animal most people categorized him as. He was not uncivilized, nor barbaric. Just rather unlucky.
Fifteen dollars shoved into the depths of his linty pockets, the result of a good day and a pack of Christian campers, wanting to do a good deed by shoving dollars at the homeless man on the corner. He could not complain, because with fifteen dollars he could get a cheap blanket at Goodwill and enough food to last at least three days. Fifteen dollars could get him a warm night and a half-full stomach.
Fourteen hours it took for him to master the guitar in his freshman year of high school. He bought it first one at a garage sale over the summer, the wooden body scuffed and dented, the E string missing. He spent hours fixing it up in his room, and when it was finally in a condition fit for him to play, he did not stop until he learned it all. Every chord, major and minor, progressions, alternate hand positions. He played at a pace too fast for callouses to form, and so blood dripped onto the carpet of his childhood room, forming stains that never came out. He wondered if that carpet was still there. He wondered if his parents had removed it, along with all thought of him in their minds. He was a failure, a disgrace, a touchy topic that was circumvented whenever he was brought up around the dinner table.
Thirteen times he had kissed a girl, each one as memorable as the next. The faces were blurred; noses and hair colors and names switched, but he remembered the actual kisses, the contact of lips to lips. He remembered the way his heart had leapt into his throat and the way electricity had somehow found a way to course on the tops of his skin. He remembered the weightless, infinite feeling he had felt, kissing girls and playing guitar and being young.
Twelve times the woman had driven past the corner today, each second sending a prolonged glance in his direction. He refused to return her gaze, rather setting his eyes on the shiny red paint of her car and inspecting her flattening rear tire. He did not need strangers in expensive cars driving past him several times a day. He did not need pity.
Eleven pearls on the necklace strung around her neck, each one glinting in the rays of the sun. He stared at her necklace, set atop ivory skin, as she advanced towards him, her head held high. Everything about her seemed to reek the word ‘excess’. He hated wealthy people, trust fund babies who were born into money, never had to work a day in their life, and did not deserve any of it.
Ten stripes, going horizontally across the front of her polo shirt, alternating between the color of an artificial ocean and the same red as the nail polish of his first girlfriend used to wear. The fabric stretched across her curves, clinging against the curvature of her hips and the flat plane of her abdomen.
Nine words uttered between glossed lips, “Frank? I would really like to help you out.” Simple, elegant, sophisticated. He stared at her blankly, blinking seventeen times (he counted) before turning away, saying nothing in response. He did not need help, especially help he did not work for.
Eight days she visited him, each day with a new Styrofoam container. The first few days she brought brand new meals, but then when he refused to eat them she started bringing remains, leftovers. Those, he ate. He said nothing as he shoveled the fork into his mouth, only chewing and swallowing.
Seven steps it took for her to walk from her shiny, parked car to the street lamp, where he stood, sign propped up against his shin. She held the container out as an offering, and he took it from her, opening it, nodding, before picking up the plastic fork and eating.
Six times she had tried to get him to talk, to coax some type of response out of him, but each time he refused. Then she just started standing there with him, occasionally sitting down, letting an awkward silence grace over their distance. Cars stared as they passed, wondering what exactly an elegant woman like her was doing sitting with someone so ragged like him.
Five times he thought about how familiar she felt to him. It was like he had known her once before, a long time ago. When she smiled, he felt a pang in his chest, like he had seen that smile so many times before, but then it suddenly disappeared; when she tucked a piece of curled hair behind her ear, reminding him of a shy girl he couldn’t quite place; the curled waves of brown hair, the slightly crooked front teeth. She almost reminded him of Tanya, his once fiancée, but that was over ten years ago, and he was almost positive that she was long gone, living the life of some other rock star’s wife.
Four words, shared between two people sitting down on a hard concrete sidewalk. “My name is Tanya.” Four words. Simple, uncomplicated words. They weren’t pretty. They didn’t sound amazing, and they weren’t profound. They still made him freeze.
Three beats he was absolutely sure his heart had skipped as those words sunk into his brain. Tanya. He had a lover once named Tanya. She was a bad lover, a selfish lover, that seemed to only love him for superficial reasons. He hoped that it wasn’t the same Tanya, but there was a gut feeling inside of him that knew that it was. He remained silent.
Two minutes, silence lingering. She looked at him hesitantly, her eyes shining with hope. Her lips opened. “I’ve been looking for you for awhile, Frank. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have – what I did was – unforgivable. Will you let me help you?” She asked him, her manicured hand slowly inching towards his rough, dry one. He looked over at her. Her hair was shiny, her skin was clear. There were lines around her eyes, and he desperately wanted to ask her what she had been doing for the last ten years. Why was she finding him now? He kept his mouth shut. She had aged well. She did not seem like the same rough, edgy girl that he had fallen in love with senior year.
One word. An answer. Affecting his life. Frank wasn’t selfish. He wasn’t her. He did not believe in people because of their money or the possibility of fame. He believed in people because of their sincerity, because of the way their actions proved their words. He did not need pity from someone who deserted him in one of his greatest times of need. Who was to say that she wouldn’t leave him again? He did not hold onto false hope. She was false hope.