If I had my focus on where it should be as a writer, I would have always had a notebook or recording device with me at all times. There are many opportunities missed, but some of the best random human encounters stay with you.
In my journey as the world’s oldest college senior, the downtown campus in Denver is very fertile ground for finding the next fascinating story inspiration. Whether it is listening to other conversations as you sit in the food court, or while ‘reading’ in the library or just walking around.
An a sprawling urban environment that includes several educational institutions literally allows for all walks of life to join you among or in between the buildings. This population would include the very less fortunate members of society who are either homeless or in extreme dire circumstances of some kind.
And when you mix in a population of people with lunch money, some interesting interactions occur as people request money to better help their situation. Over the years, I’ve encountered several dozen people directly or indirectly asking for money.
Of course, not all of them are really in need. The local news offered several stories about a substantial number of professional panhandlers in the metro area. Some of them making $30,000-$60,000 dollars a year and return to nice homes or drive in nice cars. Clearly, they are the exception and not the rule. And for me, they are fairly easy to pick out. One, they work the same areas all year long. Two, they have jeans, a lifetime supply of cigarettes and nice cell phones to go along with folding chairs and umbrellas for break times.
The real stories reside among those truly in need. I recall one woman who walked right up to my vehicle as I waited through several traffic light changes. She simply asked for anything I could spare, I only had a five dollar bill on me, so I handed it over. She cried. She was the most thankful person for five dollars I ever met. And she turned, crossed the street and ran into a McDonald’s. It really does feel nice to help someone who really needed it. I wish I had more money on me.
My very favorite encounter was the storyteller.
An elderly man, at least into his 70’s approached me as a set on a corner bench. I was in between classes, the weather was beautiful and I wasn’t even pretending to read the book in my lap.
He stood in front of me and held his hand up. It was covered in a lump of gauze wrap and looked more like his hand was prepped for a boxing glove than to treat an injury. The gauze was dirty and had probably been on that hand for a while, it was fraying on the edges.
In his other hand, he held a piece of paper and an empty medical prescription bottle. He then smiled a broken toothed smile and began his presentation in earnest.
“Ouch,” I replied. “I’m not a big fan of spiders. What kind of spider was it.?”
“I don’t know the kind, but it was black,” he explained. “I was asleep under a tree and it just bit me. So, I went to the doctor and he gave me some medicine.”
The prescription bottle was offered as evidence, and then carefully tucked into his pocket. “I have another prescription.”
And a well worn piece of paper was gently unfolded and held up into the air. All I could tell is that there was some handwriting on the the other side of it, and truth be told it didn’t look like it was on any kind of official stationery.
“Doc said if I don’t get medicine, this spider bite could take a turn for the worse.”
Well, I sure didn’t want that. “How much does your prescription cost?”
“Twenty-six dollars,” he quickly answered.
“How much do you have so far?”
He looked toward his pockets, then he looked up in the air to do some mental calculations and said, “Five dollars.”
I grabbed my wallet, pulled out the only money I had and gave him eleven bucks.
“Hopefully, it gets you closer to your goal.”
He thanked me, and smiled. He secured his new funds, and then his smile disappeared. He mumbled have a great day and began to walk toward the train station as fast as he could.
I suddenly understood his change of demeanor as a campus police officer now stood before me.
“Are you a student here?”
“Yes, sir,” I showed him my identification, and looked to my side as the old man was trying to make the last 120-yards without breaking into a run. I tried to buy him some time as the officer explained that panhandling wasn’t allowed on campus, and that I shouldn’t make the problem worse by caving in and giving money.
“But he had a spider bite.”
“What?” the officer asked.
I retold the spider saga and explained the elderly gentlemen appeared sincere to me. He had a prescription.
The officer didn’t quite buy it. He walked away mid-conversation, quickened his pace and moved into a quick jog in pursuit of the old guy. I watched the weirdest chase scene never in a movie slowly unfold in front of me. I lost sight of the elderly fellow as he mixed in with the crowd boarding the train and the officer appeared to give up among the large crowd of passengers moving on and off the platform.
It is important to have a story. That epic was absolutely worth 11 bucks. I would hate to see that thing take a turn for the worse.
And props don’t hurt either, even if you don’t know what kind of spider it was.