The gray-haired man By Amado Muro El Paso The gray-haired man with the rubber-tipped cane and slow, painful gait said he was walking in the direction of the railroad yards himself and would show me the way. I did not mind his slow gait. It was Sunday morning and Fort Worth’s quiet streets were only streakily illuminated by daylight. The morning sun was so faint behind the clouds that the wintry day seemed like gray twilight. We walked. along West Vickery Street, and the gray-haired man said he’d left Brother Bill’s Mission without eating the night before. He explained why. “Brother Bill may be holy, but he damned sure ain’t friendly,” he said. “He preached that same old long sermon about how God told him to spit out his cigarette, put away his jug, and walk down the King’s Highway. ‘I’m a sinner saved by grace,’ he said. ‘Will you say Amen to that all you evil Adamites that go to churches that compromise?’ Then when he got through preaching, he said, Now how many men want to be saved? All who haven’t been saved raise their hands. Come to God you’ve got nothing to lose. You’re sinning out on the road.’ Didn’t nobody but a couple of old mission stiffs raise their hands though, and that made him mad. `You bums have it good here,’ he said. `Where would you be tonight if we didn’t let you stay here? You’d be out begging in the streets. How .many homes would be opened to you tonight? Most would cast you out. You should thank. God there are good Christians who take you into this mission. When three more come to God you can eat.’ ” He shivered; to control his shivering he moved his shoulders and beat his right hand up against his chest. For a while it helped, but he could not beat fast enough, and long shivers began to run down his body where the raw wind hit him. “I’d rather beg in the streets than listen to that kind of talk just for a bowl of soup with maybe seven beans in it,” he said. “So I just up and walked to the door. When I walked away, I heard Brother Bill shout, ‘It got too hot for that man. He was afraid he might be saved.’ But I went out the door anyway.” WE PASSED plain frame houses with cold, clipped lawns and beds of stiff flower stalks, and the gray-haired man said he’d slept in a doorknocker’s junk truck. “After I walked out of Brother Bill’s Amado Muro lives in El Paso and works for a railroad. His stories have been published in anthologies. 14 The Texas Observer WE CROSSED the empty street, and the gray-haired man said he’d been a boomer cook in skid row cafes before he lost his left arm. Since then he’d picked pole beans, scrapped ground cotton and sold blood. ‘What hurt him most, he said, was losing the arm he cooked with. “That hurt me, Pancho, because I’m left-handed,” he said. “I just used my right hand to pick up pots and pans with. It’s a hard get-by now. I’m like a dog keeping house in an alley. I miss cooking, Pancho. I’d rather be over a stove with a spatula than any place else I know. I worked in cafes where they served 1500 meals a day and didn’t nobody ever say I was too slow. People said all kinds of nice things about my cooking. When I worked at Big Mama’s Cafe on Two Street in Sacramento he told everyone I was the best butter bean cook she ever seen and bragged about how fast I chopped vegetables with the French knife and how well I mashed potatoes.” He smiled, his gaunt face creasing at the sides of his mouth, and his pale eyes grew reminiscent. “I never cooked in a place off the skid row, but once I washed dishes at a big hotel in Miami Beach,” he said. “The dishwashing machine made it easy. I made seven dollars a day and ate everything on the order, even steaks. But I got restless and quit. A red-headed hostess asked me to stay. She was a nice lady. She said, ‘You got it good here. You can eat all you want, and you got a six dollar-a-day room.’ The waitresses were nice to me, too.” THE CHILLY wind swept across the tops of the cottonwoods, shaking the massed branches. The wind stiffened the beard stubble on my cheeks, and I worked my mouth so it wouldn’t feel so rigid. The gray-haired man hummed gently through his teeth and watched leaves, which had lost their green, whirl down to the ground. “I sell blood because I can’t panhandle,” he said. “As long as I’ve been on the blink I’ve never been able to panhandle. A stiff’s not normal or average when he’s hard-pressed, but I hit it the rough way. I never learned how to ask, and I can’t hardly walk up to a man and ding-dong him. When you’re hungry you got to go out and greet them. They won’t bring it to you. But I couldn’t bum salt. If I tried to panhandle, the second guy I’d brace would be a law. I’ve been so hungry I couldn’t hardly talk and I’ve thought maybe some man might help me get a sandwich, but when I walk up to them I fade away and my courage fails me. I’ll go hungry until we get to Big Spring, and then I’ll get something to eat at the Sally. You can double up on that stew there after the ear-binging’s over.” It was getting colder. The wind blew through my windbreaker and flannel shirt and I seemed to feel it pressing on my ribs. The gray-haired man raised his hand stiffly and pulled his coat collar up around his neck. But he was chilled through, and he could not stop shivering. His teeth kept chattering together and the cold seemed to run up through his body, making his arm shake. He went on doggedly putting one foot carefully in one square of the sidewalk, then lifting the other foot and putting it carefully in the square ahead. We neared the Round House Cafe, just north of the Texas and Pacific yards. There was a flat, broken stretch of dumping ground studded with signboards and Mission I saw these two junk trucks parked right next to each other, and one of them had a blanket in it,” he said. “So I got into it quiet and nested down and didn’t smoke. After a while I heard another stiff get into the junk truck next to mine and he started smoking and coughing. Pretty soon I heard a man holler, ‘Hey you, get the hell out of there.’ So the stiff had to get up and go. But I wasn’t coughing so nobody noticed me. That’s why I don’t smoke in trucks. It makes you cough and you got to be quiet.” He spoke in a tired voice without even raising his eyes. He was small and very thin. His bones showed everywhere and his face looked worn and gaunt. The heightening wind, strong as a squall, flattened his gray hair against his head, and his shirt collar billowed out from his stringy neck. His clothes were shapeless from being slept in and the left sleeve of his coat was empty, pinned against the coat and tucked into the side pocket. He smiled when I looked at it. “I’m not so bad off, Pancho,” he said. “I can shave myself and roll a cigarette good as the next boabout. But if I buy tailor mades I have a hard time breaking the cellophane open.” The Mexican boy pulling the cart with a big black cazuela of menudo looked at us, but did not pause. The dog beside him was so old he didn’t trot. He just walked step by step, like an old man. We walked west slowly. The street was beginning to look shabbier. Most of the houses needed painting; the shingled roofs had a dingy, weatherbeaten look. “I’ve sold a lot of blood since I lost my left arm,” the gray-haired man said. “I carry my blood type in my pocket it’s A-Positive. By rights a rough-work stiff shouldn’t have to sell blood to get something to eat though. If you were giving blood to another stiff that was dying it would be different, but selling it just don’t seem right. I keep putting down though because I’m hungry most of the time.”
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