Writing this column isn't always easy, especially when I can't think of anything to say. I'm having one of those days.
Staring at a blank computer screen isn't helping, and I need to get my cat some food. Fancy Feast is the only stuff she'll eat, and I decide to take a break from my staring to walk over to the Garfield Market at Eighth and Vine.
As soon as I step out of my apartment building, a guy approaches me.
"You got a lighter?" he asks.
I don't answer him, just pull my Zippo out of my pocket, open it and start up the flame.
"Hold on, hold on, I'm not really yet!" the man says impatiently.
He takes this skinny cigar out of his pocket and removes the wrapping around it. He sticks the cigar in this mouth, sucks on it for awhile, then puts the other end in his mouth, again sucking. I just stand there not understanding this procedure, but I'm not about to question it.
"All right, now I'm ready," he says.
I again open the Zippo, and around that time a gust of wind comes along -- but as you Zippo people know, that's not about to put out the flame.
The man gets his cigar lit and smiles.
"That's a great thing about a Zippo," he says. "A wind can come along, and that thing stays lit!"
"You got that right," I reply, anxious to move on and feeling like I've watched him suck on his cigar for hours.
I get to the corner of Eighth and Main, take a cigarette out of my pocket and light it with my Zippo.
I'm approached again, this time by an older woman.
"You got a cigarette I can borrow, hon?" she says.
I suppose staring at my computer for too long has made me a bit cranky. My reply is "Oh, do you intend on giving it back when you're finished?"
The woman gives me a sad look and I start to feel bad. I end up giving her two cigarettes, saying I'm sorry for being a smartass. I look in my pack -- down to one cigarette.
My goal now is to get to the Garfield Market without being approached by anybody else. Of course, I don't succeed.
A guy starts walking with me like I'm some kind of long lost friend. His hair is long and dirty, and so are his clothes. He has a big old smile on his face.
"Hey, man, how you doing? Long time no see," he says.
I play along with him, thinking maybe I do know the guy.
We talk about his kids, how he's out of work and how he's looking to get a little money so he can go get something to eat. Just wanting to get to the goddamn store, I reach into my wallet and give the guy a buck.
"Hey, can you give me two?" the guy says.
"No!" I say, probably being a bit cranky again. "I don't work hard for my money to simply give it to you."
Taken back, the guy -- who, I now know for sure, I don't know -- walks away.
I finally make it to the Garfield Market. I get that cat food, a pack of cigarettes and, knowing I have some vodka at home but no tonic water to go with it, pick up a bottle.
Please remember I'm still a little cranky. I watch the cashier ring up my stuff; and when he gets to the tonic water, I speak out.
"Don't you think having to pay two bucks for a small bottle of tonic water is a little much?
The man looks at me puzzled.
"I don't set the prices, sir," he says. "Do you want it or not?"
"Ring it up," I say. "You know what I pay for this anywhere else? 79 cents."
The man says nothing. I pay for my shit and leave, saying to myself I'll never go back to this store but fully realizing that I'll probably be back tomorrow.
I'm close to home and an older man approaches me. He's got a piece of paper that he's holding and he wants me to look at it.
"I'm mute. Need 75cents or a dollar for the bus to get back home."
I look at the guy and feel sorry for him. I reach into my pocket and give the man three quarters.
As the man takes my money, he looks at me and smiles.
"Thank you," he says.
I don't even bother to tell him he's broken out of character. I simply say, "You're welcome" and finish my walk back home.
I put the cat food away, light up a cigarette and again look at my computer screen. I think of that guy chewing on that skinny cigar.
I start typing.
Larry Gross' book, Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Stories, is in bookstores now or can be ordered through Amazon.com.