At exit 34 – where surface streets flow into the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway like an estuary – lives a beggar. Wobbly, he approaches the cars with a sign in hand. “God bless you,” cries out the sign. “God bless you” cry his glassy eyes, empty of hope, waiting to be filled with coins to put toward a bottle of cheap alcohol.
Other nights, the coldest, he tries not to fall down while lowering his pants to urinate. He leans on the icy wind that whips street signs and his body indiscriminately. Little by little, under the bridge, he built his house in New York City. First a supermarket cart; inside it, a black garbage bag. The bag balloons in the summer, as the beggar amasses rags, and it emaciates in the winter as the unforgiving cold beckons the beggar to add layer after layer.
One day, he was no longer alone. Next to him appeared a woman who swayed flirtatiously to his side before joining him in their daily necessity: crossing the yellow line between life and death to greet closed car windows.
Their love faded as quickly as it had materialized. The woman, her overcoat, her oversized men shoes, and frayed scarf vanished into the night of Brooklyn. The beggar, teetering more than ever, replaced her with a rickety chair, where he rested his body to observe the endless stream of cars tip-toeing away from the streets of Brooklyn, escaping sad human billboards like him in favor of highway billboards. Those signs assault your eyes, but never dare approach your window.
This Christmas, when I pulled up to exit 34, a red suitcase stood in place of the beggar. I cursed myself for taking the middle lane, as I was unable to observe more closely. I had in my hand a few bills to offer my beggar, as Christmas obliges, so he could purchase his liquor and in the ensuing delirium revisit the ghosts of his past.
I looked around desperately, begging the red light to linger so that I could extend my hand and smile at the man. Through the neighboring car’s window, I could see the sign, the chair, and a red suitcase. But still, I could see no signs of the beggar himself.
The light changed, and I accelerated to get away from exit 34. When I arrived home, I turned on the lights and discovered that the place where I keep my red suitcase was empty. I sat in my rickety chair and whispered “God bless you” as I watched a car pull away, the driver holding a few bills, his tail lights vanishing into the night.