The Human Balloon
It was outside a fast-food chicken restaurant, near Union Square, where I first saw the man whose story this is. To be truthful, I didn't really see him. I heard him: "Could you buy me a chicken dinner?"
Not, "Could you spare some change?" Or, "Could you buy me a cup of coffee?" But, "Could you buy me a chicken dinner?"
He probably wanted coleslaw, extra beans.
Wrapped entirely in newspaper, his feet swaddled in The Times, his legs in The Wall Street Journal, his torso in The Post, his head in The Voice, he lifted his face; it was rudely pink, molluscoid, bloated and blistered, a chin of penumbral stubble, rather than a full Melvillean beard. The newspapers were a filthy orange and looked more like the Dead Sea Scrolls than yesterday's news.
"Could you buy me a chicken dinner?" He made a sucking noise with his teeth as he asked. I bit my bottom lip, deciding that if I bought him a chicken dinner now I would have to do so again. I walked on.
I saw the man on several occasions after this, sitting, imploring; soaked by the rain dripping from the awning. Baked by the sun, buffeted by the winds, and chilled by the cold, his entreaties mingled with and became part of the soupy hum of the city.
Then one day I saw an ambulance parked opposite the man’s place of petition. Two attendants were carrying him to the vehicle. They were not using a stretcher. The man was in a sitting position, one arm raised as if in greeting, the other by his side. The weather had turned the newspapers into a papier-mâché suit, entombing him. The doors of the ambulance closed on him before I could ask if he was OK.
To this day I still wonder if, once he reached the hospital, the doctors took a large needle and, as with a child's balloon, popped the man and pulled his pink and buzzing body through the hole where his head had been, leaving a perfect, faceless body-cast – the man's wrinkled, deflated skin left whirring and trembling in a bucket somewhere.