A Gift in Pioneer Square


“Hey brother, can you spare a cig?”

The short bearded man was talking to me; he wanted one after seeing me light up while taking photos in Seattle’s Pioneer Square at 1:00am – sometime in 1984. Not more than five feet tall, he was covered with the soot of life – from a filthy trucker’s cap to a pair of grimy tennis shoes. His down jacket was torn and smooth in a patina that only comes from being a permanent part of someone’s wardrobe. A tossed blanket of gruff hair covered his face, overlapped by a greasy mane that fell below his dirty hat.

I was twenty, unfocused, and killing time after dark with a camera Downtown.

That night I was shooting black & white film (Kodak Tri-X Pan 400 probably), and taking hand-held photos around Yesler Way, the Pergola, and the surrounding streets. Somehow I managed to get decent shots without a tripod. I also smoked at the time, another habit cultivated more by boredom than addiction. Illuminated by the round streetlights on that night in 1984, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a hard pack of Marlboro Lights.

“Take two,” I said. “They’re small.”

The man was disheveled and clearly drunk, stumbling his way over to take two – maybe three – cigarettes from the pack. He pocketed one and tore the filter off the other before leaning down to my lighter. The small dirty fingers of his right hand cradled the cigarette in a secure grip. The first drag he took was long and deep, like he hadn’t smoked in forty years. After getting straight with a smoke, he started to talk.

He told me what it was like being on the streets, how the weather impacted his life, and people he knew, He talked with me like we had known each other in the past and were just catching up on life. My part in the conversation was merely to listen and try understanding.

“You know what?” he said. “You’re alright. And I’ve got something for you.”

He pulled something out of his pocket and then put a crumpled paper sack in my hand. It had eight to ten rolls of Lifesavers inside.

I looked at him as he took another drag off the cigarette. “Thanks, but I can’t accept this,” I said. “These belong to you.”

My feeling was that a person who had nothing but the clothes he was wearing, living on the streets, really didn’t need to give Lifesavers to some suburban punk. If anything, I should have given *him* my entire pack of smokes.

“Nah man it’s alright,” he replied. “Keep `em. You’re a good guy and you listened to me. Now I gotta go find a place to sleep.”

I thanked the man for his gift and shook his hand. He was soon gone into the night and out of sight. But I never forgot him, that bag of Lifesavers, and the few minutes in 1984 when our lives crossed paths.


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