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Down

... but not out

Eric exited from the back, service entrance of his building and into the grey, mid-November day where, above, the clouds hung oppressively low over the city, threatening the forecast rain. From one hand dangled a large, plastic bag of recyclables. He stepped from the relative protection of the entryway and then immediately retreated; he was caught by the damp, cold wind and quickly realised that he should have put on a sweater under his coat.

'Oh well,' he commented to himself, 'it's not so cold that I'll freeze. It should only take me a half hour to walk to the store and back. Then I'll make some hot cocoa and get some work done.'

So decided and, comforted with the idea of getting back to his comfortable apartment, with his free hand, he clumsily buttoned his collar and felt the warming lining close over his throat. He shivered briefly and then, while still out of the wind, thumbed a cigarette from the pack in his coat pocket and then lit it. As he replaced the lighter in the back pocket of his jeans, his perceptions extended beyond his own immediacy and were drawn to movement near the trash bins.

The man there had not noticed Eric. He was, instead, intent, with a long stick, on picking through the recyclable pizza boxes and packaging, plastic containers and other things that would be picked up and returned to a sorting depot. The man carefully collected a returnable bottle and placed it in a tattered sack on the ground. As he stood to return to his collection, he looked up and there was a brief space of time in which he and Eric acknowledged one another.

Eric looked at the plastic bag hanging from his fingers and then at the man. Taking a pull from his cigarette, he stepped from the entryway and into the cold wind holding up the bag.

“These are all returnable,” he said of the tightly packed contents.

“I can take them?” questioned the other.

“Sure you can. I usually just leave them behind the bin anyway.”

“That's you that leaves them out?”

Eric nodded and began to wonder at what might have driven this man to be doing what he was doing.

“Thank you, very, very much,” offered the other of what gratitude he had for the gesture and accepted the bulging plastic bag.
At the same time, Eric noticed how he tended to look down as though shying away from being spoken to – more used to being invisible. Eric took another drag from his cigarette and contemplated the fellow.

He was, in many regards, little different from Eric, himself – slightly shorter and broader, his coat showing that it had seen better days but, reasoned Eric, in the uncertainty of today, just about anyone can find themselves losing their security and be forced into a situation that, at any previous time in their life, would have been completely unforeseen.

“Not wanting to pry,” ventured Eric, while the other man stowed the returnables with his previous collection and then turned to face him again, “but I take it that things have got hard for you.”

The man continued to show his surprise in being addressed, as though, he had lost all expectation of being treated respectfully.

“Three years,” he said. “I can't find work anymore.” His despondency over the fact was patent. Eric nodded, remembering a period when, without being reduced to going through trash bins, he too had despaired of finding work.

“Are you still looking?” asked Eric, trying not to seem the Inquisitor. The man, rubbed his hands together – they were ruddied with cold – and then shoved them deep in the pockets of his coat. He looked at the ground and then at Eric. He shook his head. A cold drizzle had begun to fall.

“Do you have a resume?” queried Eric. The essence of an idea began to form in his mind. He brushed some chilling mist from his forehead and took a last drag from his cigarette.

“I haven't updated it in a long time,” responded the man. “I know I should.”

Again, Eric had to identify with the implicit psychology that he was being presented. Unemployment – especially protracted unemployment – leads to a growing sense of futility; a sort of, 'if everyone rejects me, then why even bother' type of reasoning. He had been in it but managed, successfully, to fight through.

“I understand that,” offered Eric. “It gets hard to do.”

“It does,” accepted the man. He looked away again, pensive. In after thought, he added, “I was an accountant.” Eric decided to try.

“I'll make an offer to you,” he suggested. “If you meet me one day for a coffee, I will make you a new resume that will get you hired. I'm kinda good with words...” He trailed off, smiling.

The other man seemed uncomfortable and uncertain before the forthright stranger.

“What...,” he began, “do you do?”

“I'm a writer. I'm paid as a graphic artist,” responded Eric.

“Why would you do this for me?” The man looked at himself and then around, at the trash that had blown from the bins and then up toward the misting sky.

“That's simple,” answered Eric, frankly. “I believe that it is possible to make positive change in the lives of those around us. Maybe, I can help you this time. Another time, maybe you can help someone else.”

They agreed and the man was introduced as 'Greg'.

After promising to keep watching for Greg, Eric continued on his way to do his brief round of shopping. He was beginning to feel the dampness and cold seep into his body, but he knew that, behind him and continuing to go through trash bins, another man was far colder.

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