Black streaks and a film of grey grime already covered the mounds of snow, pushed against the curbs and sidewalks by plows an hour earlier. This gritty reality was utterly unlike the fresh beauty of winter snows he remembered from life on a farm in the Texas panhandle. Here, waking to a fresh snowfall didn’t spark wonder at the magic of nature; no, here it seemed to trigger disgust, as if the snow had a motive, an intent…a clear plan to ruin the commute to work or require extra time to get unruly kids ready for school.
Kentner slogged through the wet slush, across an intersection where salt had half-melted a flow of grey and white chunks. Most of the shop windows along the way were dark and would stay that way for another hour, but behind the glass fronts of a donut shop and a breakfast diner along the way, lights blazed and stone-faced early risers waited in line for food and coffee. Kentner considered stopping to grab a roll and coffee, but the lines dissuaded him. He had no patience for small-talk with angry commuters looking for someone to blame for the snow.
As he approached a kolache shop half a block from the train station, he heard a commotion. He slowed his pace as he neared the flare-up.
“Get out! My customers don’t wanna step over a panhandler! You wanna stay warm, you go to the station! You get outta my doorway!”
“All right, all right. I’m going. You don’t have to be so rude about it.”
“I’m not rude! You’re rude for blocking my door!”
“I’m not blocking your door. I’m five feet away from your door! But I’m going. You don’t want me here, I’m going.”
“Damn right I don’t want you here! You go!”
Kentner judged the shopkeeper, a woman, to be in her late fifties or early sixties. He thought she might have a slight accent. Perhaps she had been an immigrant? Whatever kindness she had been shown when she entered this country, he thought, had left her. She was hard and cold, just like this frigid morning, Kentner sensed; she was the sort of person he’d hoped he left behind in the panhandle.
Kentner couldn’t tell much about the object of the woman’s ire. He had been sitting in front of the shop, leaning against the window about five feet from the entry, his legs straight in front of him, blocking part of the sidewalk but leaving plenty of room for people to walk around him. As the man arose, Kentner saw he was wrapped in a blanket from his chin to his feet. The man grabbed a small backpack, worn and dirty, that sat beside him, and struggled to his feet.
The shopkeeper, seeming satisfied the man would leave, went inside to tend to her customers. Now that Kentner was closer, the man looked middle-aged or a little older. But Kentner knew, having seen enough homeless people on the streets, he might be much younger. Life on the street can age a person fast.
By the time Kentner reached the shop doorway, the man had made it a couple of doors beyond the kolache shop. Picking up his pace, Kentner caught up to him and spoke.
“Hey, sorry the old woman is such a horse’s ass. Here,” he said, as he reached toward the man with a ten dollar bill in his hand, “buy yourself some breakfast, pal.”
The man hesitated, then took the money. “Thanks, man! I appreciate that. I most surely will buy me some breakfast! Maybe I’ll buy it from her!”
“Do yourself a favor and find someplace else. She’ll just give you more grief.”
The man looked hard at Kentner for a moment. “I suppose you’re right. I got enough grief without her adding to it. Thanks again, man. I appreciate your generosity.”
He turned and continued to walk toward the station.
Kentner backtracked to the kolache shop and went inside, getting in line behind two shivering women.
When it was his turn to order, he said, “I’d like four rhubarb and walnut kolaches.”
“Okay, eight dollars.”
Kentner reached into his wallet and reached for a twenty but stopped, instead deliberately pulled out a ten, and handed it to the woman.
“Okay, two dollars change.”
“No, I gave you a twenty; I need twelve dollars change.”
“No sir, you gave me ten. No twenty.”
“No, ma’am, I gave you a twenty.”
“Sir, you give me ten dollars. You get two dollars change! Not twelve.”
“Listen, lady, I don’t want to get into a big argument with you, but either you give me my twelve dollars change or I’m going to get the police in here and they’ll decide whether you’re trying to cheat me!”
“Fine! You call police! I call police if you don’t get out my shop!”
Kentner did not respond. He stood staring at the woman, waiting for her to follow-up on her threat. She stood her ground by remaining silent. Behind him, another patron took his side.
“Lady, give him his damn change! If you’re gonna rip off customers, I’m not gonna buy nothing from you!”
Finally, she relented. “Okay. I give you twelve dollar. But you leave and you no come back here; you cheat me!” She threw a ten and two ones on the counter. He smiled at her and took them.
“Thank you so much, ma’am. Have a great day!”
Kentner turned, walked out of the shop, reaching into the bag of kolaches, and headed toward the station.
He climbed down the slushy stairs toward the platform. At the base of the stairs, the man he’d encountered in front of the woman’s shop was sitting on a bench near a fruit stand, peeling a banana.
“Hey, pal, here’s something to go with your banana,” Kentner said, handing the man the sack with the two remaining kolaches.