A Shirt

July 13, 2004, a cold, drizzly day. It would have been my father's 101st birthday. I was walking through Washington Square when I was stopped by a beggar. "What a beautiful shirt. Can I have it?" he asked.

The shirt was white with green stripes. It was old; I was wearing it in a photograph that appeared in the New York Times on June 19, 1995. The collar and cuffs were quite frayed. Carol, my wife, had been telling me to throw it out for some time, but I was extremely fond of the shirt. I understood why the beggar liked it. Or maybe I didn't really understand. He looked confused, and he spoke and moved very slowly.

I thought I could take it off, give it to him, and run home for a new shirt, but I felt that despite the frequent presence of shirtless men in the neighborhood, an old man without a shirt on a cold rainy day would be taken for psychotic and sent to Bellevue. I said, "Wait here. I'll go home and change shirts. I'll be back in ten minutes."

"Before you go, can I have a dollar?" asked a second beggar. I gave a dollar to beggar #2 and told beggar #1 not to go away. I went home, changed, and carried the shirt back to the park. Beggar #1 was nowhere to be seen. I asked beggar #2, who was still there, where I could find him. He led me to a bench in the park where beggar #1 was sitting next to a handsome young red-headed man.

"Can you give me a dollar?" asked beggar #2.

"I gave you a dollar ten minutes ago," I said.

I gave beggar #1 the shirt. "Stay with me. I want to be your friend forever." He pointed to the red-headed man. "Give him a dollar. He's a poor Jew."

The red-headed man may well have been a Jew, as so many redheads are, but he didn't look the slightest bit needy. He and I simultaneously smiled at each other, shook hands, and said "Glad to meet you."

I tried to leave. Beggar #1 grabbed me and said "I don't want to lose you. Give me your card."

"I don't have a card," I said. I tried to go. He held me. I pulled loose and walked away rapidly.

I hope he enjoyed the shirt.

This essay appeared in And Then, Volume 11, 2003