Author : Liz Shannon Miller

The last panhandler to go digital isn’t the last panhandler. One man left behind, and that man is Stinkpot Pink, great orator of the Ravenwood line, the Prophet of the El.

Stinkpot Pink has only one arm, so carrying the charger, for him, is an impossibility. But he stands among them anyway, swaying with the train’s motion like a sea captain from a story, all misfortune his white whale. He screams over the rattle of the rails:

“Books hold the secrets to happiness, but you stare at your plastic, and you keep your heads down!”

He has a book tucked into his front jacket pocket, half-obscuring the name embroidered over the breast, leaving only a faded “–eter.” It’s all the real name he has left. The book is the Bible, and he hasn’t read it in years. He hasn’t needed to.

He keeps on shouting.

“But try and look down at the ground! Try and find a patch of dirt! Look, for once in your lives. Remember what man didn’t make!”

People keep their heads lowered, because they hold the world in the palms of their hands. They talk, they play, they learn, all with eyes focused on small screens. Here but not there. Making use of the daily commute.

Stinkpot Pink rocks with the motion of his now-small world, his one arm twined around the center pole like it’s the woman who got away. He has lived in more cities than any of these people would expect, assuming as they might that a man with no shoes has never traveled. That is, if they’d noticed about the shoes at all.

The chargers are bulky, cumbersome, and prone to error. They tag those who use them, leaving them easy for the government to pick off, one by one. That’s what Stinkpot Pink screams at his fellow man. He screams to be heard, over the rails and the beeps and the clicks and the buzz of his oh-so-light head.

The train arrives at the station, and Stinkpot Pink nearly loses his balance. It’s that stumble which makes a few of the passengers look. One woman, eyes narrow and strained from the screen, but still able to express some sympathy, pulls her credit card out of one pocket. Her eyes rake over the man, expecting the charger to be somewhere easy to see.

“Spare some change?” the man asks, the old phrase.

The woman shrugs. “All I have is cards.”

The man sniffs. “Plastic.”

The woman puts her card in her pocket, her smile helpless, her money safely locked inside machines. “Sorry.”

He watches her go, then turns to the rest, the new arrivals, as the train again picks up speed. He rants and raves about the world long ago, eras long since lost but so much more real. The Middle Ages, the Gold Rush, men killing each other over nuggets. The days, as he says, when the god who ruled man could be held in one’s hand.

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