Cooney turned his back to the rising sun and made his way down wind-blown streets littered with shreds of newspaper and fast-food wrappings that tumbled through the gutters. A poor night’s sleep, and the continuing elegy of a mourning dove in the tree above him led him to abandon any effort at rest. An elusive concept during the best of times, ‘rest’ now meant for Cooney only the immediate absence of tension. Nonetheless uncertainty and discontent burbled constantly just below his surface. He could not hide this, and so he spent most of his days now in an aimless ramble around his dirty city.
Too long he had done this, and on most days he felt beyond his years, made old by the lack of warmth, the lack of comfort and, most of all, by the lack of purpose. He had once been a brutal young man, taking what he could by guile, by strength, and by force. But what had it served him, really? All he had managed to do was steal the means to bring himself to another day, and the need to steal again. But in the contorted values of the street, his ability to bridge the years, to live as he had for so long when most fell away into incarceration, madness and death, brought him a respect he could never have earned elsewhere. This was where he belonged, and he knew this. Even so, such knowledge brought him scant comfort.
‘An elder statesman,’ he mused to himself. ‘I’ve become an institution.’
It was to the mission that he wandered this morning, a safe haven for coffee and a muffin, which he needed, and a soft prayer from Fr. Cleary, which he didn’t. It took the abiding of one to secure the other, though, and so Cooney took his place, bowed his head and waited for the reward. It did not matter that the muffin might be a day or so old, or that the coffee came too cold for his liking. What mattered on these mornings was that it was there at all, and he did not have to steal it.
Across the way sat a young man he had not seen before, as tattered as the rest, but going on about who he was and what he was going to do. “I love this city,” he said too loudly for those around him who really weren’t at all interested in hearing him. “Do you know how many rich people there are in this city? Businessmen and lawyers and doctors, and not a damn one of them has a clue. They don’t see us, and they don’t know me. We’re invisible, and don’t you see how that’s all to our advantage. Come and go as we please, and take what we want, and still they don’t see us. And after this quick meal, I’m back out there again. God, I love this city.”
Cooney regarded him slowly. He had seen others of this stripe, all coming and going with a bravado borne of fear. It was never that easy. There was the taking, perhaps, but then, after the taking, what did you really have?
“You know, lad,” he at last said, interrupting the other’s soliloquy. “There are better ways to live.”
The younger man snorted in reply. “And if there are, old man, why aren’t you living them?”
“Because I can’t. And neither can you. We’re sewer rats, lad, scurrying about for pieces of bread and the discards that other people don’t want. But it’s who we are.”
The other flinched, and arched his hand toward Cooney. “I’m no rat, old man. And your day is done. These streets, this life, belongs to the young ones who are strong enough to take what they want. We do things differently now. And I’m so different from you that we might as well be separate species. Man and rat.”
Cooney took his napkin and his cup, then rose from his place. “We’re no different, lad,” he sighed. “You just haven’t learned that yet. But you will. And when you do, you’ll look at things a new way. You’ll be sad, I’ll wager, and you’ll be less likely to beat up the things that stand in your way.”
The younger man glared up at Cooney, who continued in soft voice. “You’re young,” he said slightly above a whisper. “And you’re a fool. I hope some wisdom comes to you before you spend yourself into these streets, and have nothing left.”
Cooney tucked away his garbage, then up the stairs to the exit. He would spend the day in the square. It would be nice enough to sit outside, a cup by his feet to beg silently for the discards of those who passed him by – the businessmen and the lawyers and the doctors. There was nothing else to do, and soon enough the day would end, and he would be left once again to the rumbles of the night, and then the mournful cooing of the sad doves.