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Tue, 10 Aug 2010 21:30:49 +0000

In late May, I walked out of a pizzeria with two cheese slices. Immediately, a homeless man asked, “Can you spare a slice?”

Apparently I could. I sat on the sidewalk; I ate with the stranger.

He was about 60 — several prison tattoos, Shaquille O’Neal biceps and a thick New York accent. His name was Richie. He ate slowly, chewing each morsel.

Then, as he finished the crust, he casually said, “You know, I killed a guy once.”

No, I thought. I didn’t know.

That was the first time.

The second time, he said, “You don’t believe I killed a guy, do you? Well, I really did.” He had this ambiguous smile on his face, teetering between creepy and mischievous.

The third time — yes, there was a third — he stopped talking about it.

This went on for a while: I’d show up around 11:30 a.m., and he’d ask if I could spare a slice. Usually, I could. Except one time, I was short on cash and he said, “Man, I’d kill for a cheese slice today.”

And, for the last three months, I didn’t tell anyone about Richie. Because eating with a murderer is stupid. And feeding an unrepentant one is wrong.

But I’m dumb and rebellious, so there was a fourth time. That’s when he told me he couldn’t work because his hands were swollen to twice the normal size — which they were. “Shank fights,” he said, smiling. “They’re a bitch.” Of course, he never mentioned that killing a guy could also be a detriment to employment.

Another time — too many to count — he said he’d never paid taxes. “I’m against all war, and they just use my money for war.” That’s why, he said, he can’t get medical care for his hands.

Each meal was usually a forgettable few minutes. But, in retrospect, I think I did it because, a few years back, a homeless man told me the worst part of being homeless is that people ignore you — they don’t look at you. The second worst part, he said, is the loneliness. So I tried to be friendly with Richie — but not so friendly that he would follow me and, you know, kill me.

Then, a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was moving. And Richie said, “Come say goodbye when you do.” So I did.

We shook hands, but not too tightly because his swollen hands were tender. Then, right before I left, I ever-so-casually asked, “So you really killed a guy, huh?”

He burst out laughing: “You believed that!? Nah, the worst I do was steal a few cars when I was young — went to prison for that, though.”

“So why you on the streets?” I asked.

“I told you: my hands,” he said, holding up two balloon-like extremities. “I drove trucks in the cold; my hands got all messed up.”

We laughed about my naivete. We laughed about his felony record. And then we parted ways.

Before I left, though, he said, “But it don’t count if I killed a guy in prison, right?”

Then he smiled that ambiguous smile again.

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