“You put your phone away.” I glanced up to see the man speaking to me. “No one puts their phone away in this city.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t like to have it out when I’m walking around,” I said, securing my phone in my chest pocket and pulling my coat tightly around me.
The man gave me a hard stare.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
I looked at him. He was short and slightly hunched over at his shoulders. My initial thought was that he was homeless; yet, he seemed sufficiently dressed for the elements: a warm coat, clean jeans, solid boots, and a pair of insulated gloves. A black, woven cap concealed wisps of gray hair.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t recognize you.”
“You don’t know who I am?”
His stubbly face had been weathered with age, but his eyes remained soft. Not impressionable, but welcoming. A crispness glowed, and a glint of something – intelligence, wisdom, mischief – pierced through the darkness of his irises. His eyes were why I spoke with him.
“You live in the city?” he asked.
“Well, I’m kind of famous.”
“Listen, you wanna hear something,” he muttered. “I walked up to 109 people today and you’re the first one to talk to me. The one hundred and tenth person today. You think that’s coincidence?”
“Well, you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk back,” I said.
“Listen, I’m gonna tell you something.”
I leaned in.
“You ever heard of those people who find suitcases of money walking around here? Envelopes of cash on the street?”
“I’ve heard stories, yeah.”
“Well,” now it was his turn to lean in, “I’m the guy who leaves the money.”
“Really? That’s you?”
“Yes, I am a very wealthy man.”
“Really?” I asked again.
“Listen, I live in New York City. Two months out of the year – in the winter – I come out here to San Francisco to live on the streets, be homeless.”
I looked at him, disbelievingly.
“I change my diet and let my hair grow out,” he tugged at his disheveled beard. “Probably lose 15 to 20 pounds before I come out here. I have money. Picture me in a tuxedo. Wouldn’t I look good? Picture me in a tuxedo.”
I pictured him in a tuxedo. He was standing in a plush New York City foyer in front of a wide, carpeted staircase that curved upwards and out of sight behind a gaudy crystal chandelier. In my mind’s eye, he did look good.
“Yeah, I bet you do look good in a tux.” I said.
“My grandfather was one of those mob bosses, you know, one of them Capones back in the day.”
“I told you, I got money. Listen, I’ve done comedy. I’m a singer.”
“Yeah, I opened for all kinds of people – covered all those guys’ songs, those Rat Pack guys: Dean Martin, Sinatra.” He paused to gauge my reaction. “Listen, I’m gonna ask you something.”
“You know what, can we do this while we walk?” I said, motioning down Mission Street in the direction of Montgomery. “I’m late for a date.”
We began to walk in silence: he, a homeless-by-choice New Yorker, and I, any other San Franciscan millennial. I waited for him to speak first.
“Listen, I’m gonna ask you something. And, I don’t want to do this but I went up to 109 people today and you were the first person to talk to me and that means something to me. Things like this happen. I knew as soon as I saw you that you were gonna talk to me. Now, I’m gonna ask you something.”
For some reason I slowed our pace, already unhurried, and came to a stop. I turned to face him. He was a half a foot shorter than me, and at least 50 pounds lighter.
“What if I told you that I could change your life forever,” he said, “that I could make you a wealthy man, change everything? What would you say?”
“What do you mean?” I said, recalling a similar plot twist from Disney’s Aladdin.
“Listen, I have a problem and I need your help. I’m a wealthy man. When I’m here in California, I stay up near Calistoga. I drive down every day to be on the streets in the city. Then I drive back.”
“To Calistoga?” I asked.
“Listen, I must’ve been rushed this morning because I left my wallet up there or something.”
I narrowed my gaze.
“I have money,” he assured me. “But without my wallet, you see, I can’t pay to get my Royce out of the parking garage.”
“Your Royce is in a parking garage?”
“Yeah, over by the Stockton tunnels, you know, that big garage over near the tunnel. You know it?”
“They won’t let me out unless I pay them the 24 dollars.”
“Listen,” he began speaking more with his hands, “what I want is for you to come with me. Come with me to the garage, see my car, see my Royce, see that I’m telling the truth, pay the 24 dollars, and I’ll pay you back in full, and even more, tomorrow. You name the time and place tomorrow. I’ll meet you wherever. I’ll pay you back. What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?”
“I can’t walk with you all the way over there right now, I have someone waiting for me at the Ferry Building.”
“Then I’m gonna ask, can you give me 24 dollars?”
“I don’t have any money on me.”
“I knew you were gonna say that! Listen, I knew you were gonna say that! I have money,” he reminded me. “What, you don’t believe me? You don’t believe that I sing Sinatra covers when I’m livin’ in New York? Listen. You don’t believe me? Listen.”
He launched into the first verse of a Sinatra ballad right there in the middle of the sidewalk. A self-identifying billionaire asking me for money was now serenading me, and all I could do was stand there and listen, genuinely impressed by his vocal prowess – the man had talent.
The performance ended, and he looked at me.
“Okay, okay, okay you can sing.” I said, assuming my role as judge on whatever street edition of American Idol that I had just helped to create.
“So, now you can see that I’m telling you the truth. I have a lot of money. You give me 24 dollars, and I’ll change everything for you. Can you help me?”
I stared at him, gazing into those eyes that had initially captured my attention. In the brief moments that followed, the two of us must have made quite the sight standing in the middle of the sidewalk, chatting like people who knew each other.
“Here’s what I’m gonna do,” I said, pulling out my wallet. “I’m gonna give you 20 dollars and my business card. You’re gonna have to get creative for the last four. You call me and you can pay me back tomorrow.”
“Shane.” he read, looking at my card. “I’m Anthony.” The two of us shook hands.
“Now listen, Shane, I can’t get those last four dollars. I’ve approached 109 people today and you’re the first person to talk to me. It’s what, almost nine o’clock? I can’t get those last four dollars. Now, you told me you didn’t have any money on you and you gave me twenty. I will transfer you a lot of money if you just give me four more dollars.”
I was torn. Part of me was already regretting pulling out my wallet in the first place; the other part of me truly felt for the guy. I hesitated. I knew that I had exactly four one-dollar bills.
“Maybe this was supposed to happen,” I thought to myself.
“Listen, you give me those four dollars and I’ll pay you back tomorrow, name a place and time. What are you doing in the afternoon? Two or four o’clock? I don’t do odd hours.”
“I’m not sure where I’ll be tomorrow afternoon, somewhere in the city,” I said as I pulled out my wallet and handed him the four dollars. “Here. You call me tomorrow, Anthony.”
“Thank you. Thank you. Listen, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna transfer ten million to you tomorrow from my Chase account. Ten million dollars. Two things you have to promise me. Yeah?”
“What’s that?” I said, equal parts amused and surprised that there were additional stipulations.
“Two things. First, of this ten million dollars, you have to donate one million dollars to a homeless non-profit of your choice.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
“Yes, I promise.”
“Second. If you choose to make a movie out of what has just happened here tonight, and you will want to make a movie about this, you have to promise me that you will not, under any circumstances, use my real name in the film. Can you promise me that, Shane?”
“Yes, Anthony, I promise that I will not use your name in my movie.”
“Okay, now I need to run. I am really late for this date. Now, you have my card and you’re gonna call me tomorrow,” I reminded him.
“Yes, I will call you tomorrow at two o’clock.”
“I look forward to it.”
“Thank you, Shane.”
“Have a good night, Anthony. Good luck. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
We shook hands once more before I darted off towards the train, twenty-four dollars missing from my wallet and my heart pounding.
“What the hell just happened?” I asked myself, taking the stairs two at a time down to the BART platform.
“Did I just get conned by a homeless man? Or, did my life actually just change in some way?”
I was clearly flustered by my encounter with Anthony, and I, admittedly, felt a bit ashamed the next day, when at two o’clock, my phone didn’t ring.
I’m not nine million dollars richer. Call it naivety, call it stupidity, call it what ever you want. In my mind, maybe I was swindled, but maybe I wasn’t.
Who’s to say that “Anthony” didn’t lose my number? Or maybe he’s emailing back and forth with Ellen DeGeneres to orchestrate a film crew to capture my reaction when he finally returns the money to me. We don’t know.
Whether or not that 24 dollars went to helping a man get his car out of a parking garage or that 24 dollars went to paying for a bag of Big Macs ( “ ” ), I paid for one hell of a convincing performance from one hell of an interesting human.
For the foreseeable future, my heart will continue to skip a beat every time that I get a call on my phone from a number that I don’t recognize. But that makes life addicting, right?
The script is written, and I’ve selected the homeless organization.
The ball is in your court, "Anthony."