George sat upon a plastic crate atop a bundle of newspapers by the vending machine on Platform 4. In his left hand he held out a cup to accept spare change and with his right he propped up the sign that rested upon his knee. It read: Blessed We Be, You and Me.
He seldom looked up at the passersby, preferring instead to study their shoes, thus affording his audience anonymity and himself peace and quiet—they had their business and he had his. Besides, you could tell a great deal about a person from their shoes.
In each grazed heel George saw signs of pride, sloth, humility or temperance; in each scuffed toe, he searched out marks of anger or carelessness, and examined in each taut or frayed shoelace signs of neglect, poverty or exactness. Over time he’d come to recognize the bearing of the lively, the weary, the frantic and the purposeful, and nodded politely at a shoe he saw carry the weight of someone he believed to be forthright and true.
George was a man who spent his life examining life.
George was also mindful of the grand clock that hung over the center of the concourse. Whenever the clock’s hands clunked into place and claimed another hour, George would open his notebook and write down any inspiration that had been provided by a passing stranger, usually a thought about their shoes—their fit, color, style, wear, fabric or shine. And he’d always—always—end with a note about their well-being.
At night George slept in an abandoned signal hut a few hundred yards up the track. Curled up on his makeshift bed, he sometimes twisted in his sleep with pangs of hunger, but most days he found enough to eat, provided he was not too particular. After the evening rush hour he scavenged for food in the bins; once upon a time he’d found this humiliating, but the force of necessity had long since tempered his pride. Indeed, poverty had expanded his idea of what was essential to the survival of a person. A half-eaten burger or a discarded pastry was a welcome sight to a man who had long ago forgotten how to eat a meal in polite company. A discarded sandwich with only one corner missing or a slice of pie with most of its crust still intact was a true prize.
Once or twice a week, Sofia, a waitress from one of the station’s cafés, gave him a parcel of sandwiches and a peppermint cake, sometimes even a piece of fruit she’d saved from being thrown away. George always saved her precious gift until it was time to retire, alone, to his bed of cardboard and newspapers. He always celebrated Sofia’s generosity by lighting a candle and opening her parcel with a smile and a prayer.
Most of the rail station staff knew George, some by name but most by his layers of colorful shirts and bright red hiking boots. He hadn’t taken them off in years. He was afraid that they might be stolen, or worse, spun around the overhead wires outside the station, forever on display but out of reach. According to his philosophy of footwear, this was a sure sign of their owner’s folly, and besides, the laces lasted longer if you kept them tied.
George did not drink, nor did he gamble. He’d never taken drugs, except to help his asthma, and even though he’d often had the opportunity, he had never stolen or taken advantage of anyone.
After so many years of rough living, he’d grown to prefer life around the train station. It was relatively safe, at least compared to the rest of the city, and being elderly, a few of the station staff looked out for him. In addition to Sofia, there was Alina, the friendly flower seller who gave George a carnation for his lapel whenever she had one left over at the end of the day. There was Stationmaster Marcus Manach, whose nod of approval and caring eye always gave George a much-needed sense of stability in his otherwise haphazard world. And there was Adrielle, the large cleaning lady whose territory included his post on Platform 4. She would give him things—little, inexpensive things like a new toothbrush, a full, fresh tube of toothpaste, a block of unopened soap, or even a fresh blanket if it was especially cold—but they meant the world to George. There was also Freddie, Albert, Paul and Johann. While his homeless associates preferred to beg on the street outside the station, they made sure to share whatever gossip came their way, just as he shared whatever bounty was left unclaimed in the vending machine. Sometimes the four of them asked George for guidance, especially Johann who was the youngest and most impressionable of the group.
Before living in the station, George had drifted through the parks and suburbs, churchyards and shopping districts of Lightmere, moving from one neighborhood to another, pushing his belongings in a small metal cart. But life on the street had made him feel anxious and vulnerable, especially at night when prayers alone were not enough to protect him. Platform 4, with its simple routine, its washroom, bright lights and familiar faces, provided him with a sense of safety and of belonging. Besides, he had lived there for so long he wasn’t sure where else to go.
George had no family and no real friends outside of the station, and even those who did know him didn’t know much about his past. He kept it a secret, not because he had something to hide but because it was precious; he did not want the memory of his wife to be tainted or diluted by others’ casual remarks, however well intentioned. He could still remember the day, the hour, even the minute when Mary had died—how he held her hand and kissed her cheek and told her how much he loved her. George had nursed her through a long and difficult illness, and knew that she was tired, but losing her was still the saddest moment of his life. It was the same day that Daniella Parsona, the famous actress, had died on television in front of the world as she’d accepted an award. He’d never forget her death either. Twenty-five long years ago the audience had wept for Daniella, but no one except George had wept for Mary. But the fact that he alone carried the memory of their love only made him love her more.
During Mary’s illness, George fell heavily into debt. He’d been an accountant, a fact that now sometimes made him laugh, but at the time it had been very hard and worrisome. Even though the bills kept piling up, he’d managed to keep things going while Mary was alive, but as soon as she passed, George’s life quickly unraveled. He lost his job and could not settle his debts. Without anywhere to turn, he was forced onto the streets, never quite sure where to go or how to recover. Sitting on his plastic crate on Platform 4, looking dreamily at the ground, most people assumed that he’d lived a wasted life. What they saw was an old man, lost and adrift and maybe even a little mad. But George was a good man, and despite his situation, he tried his very best to live each day with dignity. He knew that Mary would have wanted it that way.