“Can you spare any change?”
We think to keep going. He has a cane. He isn’t looking in any particular direction. I know he’s blind.
But he also knows we’re there.
I hang back, watching the customers exiting the market doing exactly as I did. Pretending he isn’t there.
I step forward and place whatever cash I have in the tin camping mug he holds.
“God bless you. Thank you.”
They say being blind improves the rest of your senses. Does he smell my wife and I? Can he simply feel that I am near?
“You’re welcome,” I say. “What’s your name?”
“Booker. Booker T.”
“Booker T., my name is Max. This is my wife, Lauren.”
“Lovely to meet you both.”
“Booker T., do you mind if I ask whether or not you can see anything?”
“Nope. I don’t mind at all. Completely blind, sir.”
I shift side to side. I have only one eye to watch. Booker’s left eye is twice the size of his right. It’s swollen, blue and white, and bulging out of his face like a cartoon character being squeezed too hard.
“How do you survive on the streets as a blind man?”
“Oh. Well. I have an apartment on 18th Street. I’m out here because my last check of the year isn’t coming in and I need to make sure my wife has food to eat. You know it’s the holidays. I will do whatever it takes to make sure she doesn’t live on the streets. So here I am.” Booker talks like an airplane propeller spins.
“What do you do for a living, Booker?”
“I make music. I once played drums with Stevie Wonder. Can you believe that? Man, that was my dream. Now I record at home. Sometimes I play at church. Drums are my passion. I play with anyone who asks.”
“Stevie Wonder? That’s incredible. Were you born blind, Booker?
“I’ve been blind since I was seventeen, sir.”
“I used to street race when I was a teenager. I was in Miami. Miami, Florida. That’s where I am from. I won a race, started driving with my knees so I could roll a joint and celebrate. I was one cocky son-of-a-bitch, you know. Doing my thing. Five months later I woke up in a hospital.”
Booker grew up street racing. He was the best and he wasn’t humble about it. He always wanted to play drums, had a secret passion for it, but racing he was good at. Too good. The last time he will ever get behind the wheel of the car, Booker decides to drive with his knees doing 120 mph after winning a race so he can roll a joint. The last thing he will remember from that night is seeing the telephone pole that will shred his car to scrap metal and permanently disfigure him. The paramedics find him in the trunk when they arrive. He is pronounced brain dead at the hospital where he slips into a coma. The doctors suggest he be taken off life support. His organs are needed. But his father insists they keep his son alive, and he spends his entire life savings to keep Booker on life support. This goes on for five months until one weekend morning in April, Booker just opens his eyes like he’s only been taking a nap. Confused, his brain feeling as though it’s been plucked from his head and dropped into a swamp, Booker asks what day it is. He can’t see anything. In fact, he’s not even sure his eyes are open. But he is alive. That much he knows. He will never regain his vision, and will walk with a cane for the rest of his life. But he is alive.
“I thank God every day for being so kind to me. He had a reason to keep me around.”
“When did you start playing drums?” I ask.
“I played drums since I was a kid. But I took it up as my passion after I lost my sight.”
Booker moved to LA to pursue music where he would eventually share the stage with some of the cities greatest musicians and meet his wife who will be by later to pick him up. I hold out my hand for Booker to shake, forgetting already about his visual impairment.
“Do you mind if I shake your hand?”
“No, not at all.”
His grip is firm, kind.
I inspect the contents of Booker’s camping mug.
“Looks like there’s twenty-three dollars in that cup, just so you know.” I wonder how often a blind man begging for change is taken advantage of.
“Well I’ll be damned.” He smiles. “It’s been a good night.”
Twenty-three dollars isn’t going to pay his rent. It’s not like someone wrote him a check for a thousand dollars. Twenty-three dollars is nothing. It’s no money at all. It’s cat food and toilet paper. Yet twenty-three dollars is also a good night.
When I pull out from my parking spot, Booker is gone. The space he had been standing in only seconds before is now vacant. There is no sign of him or his belongings.
“Where did he go?” I ask Lauren. “The man was blind, needed a walking stick to get around. Did his wife pick him up already?”
“Maybe he went into the store to get food and stay warm.”
“Yeah,” I agree, leaning over the steering wheel, doing a slow crawl to see through the automatic doors and down the aisles beyond. The store appears to be as empty as the spot where Booker had just stood. “Yeah, Maybe.”