A couple of months ago, while walking back to the office, I encountered a homeless gentleman. This is somewhat of a rare occurrence on this side of downtown; there is not a ton of foot traffic, and so those looking for spare change generally tend to cast their nets elsewhere. He flagged me down. He was polite, but urgent. So I stopped, and he told me the story of the bus ticket.
His hands were trembling as he showed me the ticket, dated a day or two prior. His eyes were just this side of tears, and looked like they had been on the other side in the recent past. He had a beaten-dog voice, sad and panicky and very lonely. His story was this:
He had arrived in Dallas earlier that day — from where, he didn’t say — and his final destination was Abilene — for what, he also didn’t say — via Greyhound. Neither detail was essential to the story. But he wasn’t allowed to board the bus to Abilene, because the ticket, which someone had purchased for him online, was for the wrong day. Or the wrong bus. Or the wrong something. Even he wasn’t sure on this. The ticket didn’t work, was his point. (Given the date, and since I was generally buying his story, because I have a heart made of cotton balls and water vapor, it was easy to see from the ticket that he was simply too late.) So he was in a city he wasn’t familiar with, desperately trying to figure out a way to get on that bus and on to Abilene. And he had walked across downtown, looking for some help, and had thus far received none. Could I help him? he asked. He didn’t say he was homeless (permanently or temporarily); the story did that.
His story took several minutes to unfurl, and I let him tell the whole thing, even though I knew the last line. He needed money, but he also seemed to want someone to just hear him out. Thanks to the ticket, and his generally bewildered state, it rang true. Everyone has, at some point, heard the shop-worn story about a car running out of gas and the need to get to some distant location, or, more often, the simple, straightforward plea. The former is generally delivered perfunctorily, like they feel they have to say something to give you an excuse, and the latter is all about volume. This was different. Maybe I’m just a sucker — okay, I’m definitely a sucker — but it was different.
At any rate, I couldn’t help him. I didn’t have any cash on me. I walked with him down to the end of the block and — the Downtown Dallas security detail probably won’t be happy about this — I tried to point him in a direction where he might better be able to come by some cash. I told him about the shelters I knew of, in case he was stuck here for the night. I wished him well, and he trudged off. But he stuck with me for a bit, his wet eyes and choking voice lingering. I felt for him.
And then, two weeks later, he showed up on the same corner, around the same time, and he told me the exact same story.
He had the same ticket, but he still told me he had gotten off the bus that morning, and all the rest of it. Well, for as much as I listened. I gave him a couple of quarters and continued on my way. I felt like a bit of a chump, because I am, and because I had not only bought the original story but let it affect me. (I’m sort of predisposed to be affected, having done enough stories on our city’s homeless and knowing so many who have died.) I walked off wondering: was any of it true, ever? Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe he did miss that bus to Abilene at some point. I guess the key was the ticket, and more than likely, he had merely fished it out of the trash at the Greyhound station. I will say this: the second time he delivered the story, it was just as believable as the first. Had I not heard it before, I may have bought it then, too — even though now the ticket was wildly out of date, shaking a bit of the story’s foundation.
I didn’t see him again until last week. He was on Flora, behind the Belo Mansion, and he had someone else hooked on his tale. When I got close enough, I saw he had a bus ticket in his hand. I’m not sure if it was the same one he showed me; it looked like it, plus two more months of pocket wear. If it was, and if he was able to get anything out of the guy he stopped, he’s probably the best actor I’ve ever met. And I have to say, I hope the story still works on someone. He’s earned it.