Clarence – Mark Kelly – Medium
Memories of 90s New York
The building where I (sporadically) work when I’m in New York has forty-four floors available for the use of mere mortals, plus a forty-fifth containing dining rooms and a gymnasium for the exclusive use of the firm’s fifty managing directors.
The whole building has been declared a smoke-free workplace, with the possible exception of the managing directors’ after-dinner cigars.
As a result of the general ban, at any time of the year you may see a clutch of smokers clustered around each exit, shivering, sweltering or comfortable, according to the season. Even in the bitterest cold, hardly any will be wearing outdoor clothing, as to don a coat would be to proclaim their vice to the world.
It is however on a very hot day in July, while I am having a butt-break in the Plaza with my smoking buddy Mary, that Clarence approaches us.
He looks to be about seventy years old. In his prime he must have been powerfully built. Now he is looking a little frail. His shirt is open to the waist, revealing a shock of white hair covering his black chest.
When he starts talking it is with a mellifluous, easy-listening tone, not in the least urgent or desperate. Almost comforting, in fact.
“Good day to you fine people. And what a beautiful day it is to be out here taking the air and soaking up some sunshine. I see you standing here smiling and talking with your baby faces still on you and I say to myself “Clarence, these good folks surely won’t mind if you take up just a moment of their time to tell them your story”.
“Now I know you have heard a thousand stories before, but let me tell you that mine won’t take up more than a minute of your time, then I’ll be on my way.”
“Believe me I’m embarrassed and ashamed to be doing this, because I have always been a proud man. I have been a working man for more than fifty years, so to be relying on other people’s kindness at my time of life comes very hard. I do sincerely hope that you good people never find yourselves in this situation.”
“You see I used to work in the garment industry, up in mid-town Manhattan. Until two years ago I worked there making fine garments for the gentlemen of New York City. Now, fifty years of close-up work with needle and thread took its toll on my eyesight.”
“You may have noticed the cloudy appearance of my eyes. Well that is due to my developing cataracts on both eyes due to my line of business. Around two years ago they got so bad that I was virtually blind and the man I worked for said he would have to let me go.”
“Well, since then I have been in and out of hospital having my eyes taken care of. In fact I just came out of hospital again two weeks ago.”
“I have always had the intention that once my sight was better I could find work. But for one thing my eyes have never got back to how they were before.”
“The other thing is who is going to give me work at my age. This may surprise you folks, but I am seventy years of age today.”
“That’s right, today is my birthday. Now the result of all my hospital treatment has been to use up the little money I had set aside from my working years. So I am left to get by as best I can by relying on the kindness of friends and strangers.”
“Which brings me to the point of my story and I thank you for your kindness and patience in listening to me this far. As today is my birthday, I would very much like to celebrate by buying myself a birthday meal this evening.”
“I don’t know how much you would each be prepared to spend if you wanted to celebrate a special occasion. Maybe twenty dollars, maybe thirty dollars, or even more.”
“I know where I can buy a very nice meal, better than I have had for a long time, for just six dollars. And that’s why I’m asking whether you kind people could find it in your hearts to donate six dollars to help me celebrate my birthday this evening.”
Mary demurred. She had left her purse at her desk. I fished in my pocket, found precisely six dollars there and handed them over. Clarence was almost tearfully grateful.
“That was kind” said Mary, as Clarence shuffled off in the direction of the twin World Trade Center towers.
“It was a good pitch” I answered. “And it gets better every time I hear it.”
I explained how this wasn’t the first time I had encountered Clarence. He had approached me just over a week ago while I was pondering life’s mysteries in the Plaza behind the World Financial Center.
His story then had been completely consistent with what he told us today, including his work in the garments industry and hospital treatment for his eyes.
And yes, it had been his birthday that day too. There was no reason why he should have recognised me a week later, not with his eyes in the state they were.
Even had his eyesight been perfect, I suspect that he might find that all of us baby-faced executives look the same to him. In the same way that all of the dispossessed can come to look very similar to us folks in suits.