A Matter of Interest: A Short Story by cam
The old man teetered and wobbled along the sidewalk with the aid of a cane, not a new metal one with four feet but an old fashioned cane of wood and a little rubber boot to keep it from slipping on wet sidewalks or oily pavement. He left his apartment in the tenement building each morning after a breakfast of toast and jam with black coffee.
Why did he shuffle his feet so, when as a youth he would run and jump and play without fear? When had he lost all his swagger? The soles of his shoes wore through more quickly these days than when he walked twice as far in half the time. But shuffling was what he did now, and he did it with purpose and discipline.
The old man collected coins. Not Indian head nickels or buffalo nickels or any other rare coins, not that kind of collecting. He garnered the change that fell to the ground when someone pulled out their cell phone or wallet. He retrieved these negligible bits that no one else bothered with because of something called inflation.
Years of shuffling had taught him where the prime spots were for finding the lost wealth of the masses. In front of the downtown food carts was his most profitable hunting grounds, but when the crowds came for lunch, it was nearly impossible for him to bend down and pick up the little treasures without being jostled. Once he had been knocked to the ground where he served as a stumbling block for several passersby before someone pulled him to his feet, and though mercy was not the true motivation for the rescue, prudence was. The old man had simply been in the way.
The immediate area surrounding a parking meter was also a source of good fortune. Anywhere that served as an occasion for people to rifle through pockets or purses was a good place for the old man to spend time shuffling.
People often mistook him for a homeless beggar and attempted to give him coins they had not yet lost. He politely refused and moved on.
In the late afternoon, the old man would return to his apartment with his take for the day. Evening was the time for putting the coins into rolls to be taken to the bank and deposited into an account which he had opened thirty years before when coin hunting had been a mere hobby.
It was Thursday evening, and the tenants of the building, all elderly and all very poor, had gathered as they did every Thursday, in the wide hallway of one of the floors for a potluck dinner. Tables were set up from one end to the other. After dinner, card games and board games kept the friends together long after their normal bedtimes.
There weren't many tenements left in the city, but a few slum lords continued to evade regulators and rented the meager dwellings which routinely failed to meet building codes. The old man had no respect for the building's owner, their landlord, but he encouraged everyone to go on requesting maintenance and repairs. Rarely were any of the requests dealt with in a satisfactory manner.
The sound of his friends enjoying themselves around the tables warmed the old man's heart. But he also understood their hardships. He had made it a point over the years to know these people intimately.
There was old Ben who had driven a city bus for years. The city couldn't fund the pensions anymore, so Ben was living on his Social Security. Ann, beautiful Ann. The old man had always had a thing for her. She was so far behind in rent payments that she was in the process of being evicted. Tom and his wife, Billy, a nick name for Wilhelmina, were on such a tight budget they didn't eat well. The apartment was far too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. Every Wednesday morning, Tom would come over and have toast, jam and coffee with the old man before he went out for the day.
The old man shuffled from table to table, smiling and chatting with his friends. At the end of the hall, he turned back and banged the floor with the rubber boot of his cane. The lively banter died down until it was silent and all eyes were on him.
"My friends....you too Tom." Everyone laughed because the two were so close. But not even Tom knew what his friend was up to on this evening. "I recently had a talk with our landlord, Mr. Scrooge....I'm sorry, I mean Mr. Scruggs." Laughter again filled the hallway in spite of the advanced age of the joke. "This old building," the old man scanned the ceiling, the doorways, the worn floorboards, "This old building, our home, has been sold." The hallway erupted with groans and shouted questions.
"Scruggs is a mean son-of-a-bitch," said Tom. "But the new owner might be worse. Who is it? Do we know him?"
"Yes, we know him." The old man raised his hands to quiet the people down. "The new owner is me." The place was in a state of chaos until the old man banged his cane down on the floor again.
"Why did you buy this worn out old place?" said one.
"And how did you buy it?" said another.
Tenements in Soundview, The Bronx
"I'll get to your questions in a few minutes. First, I need to make something perfectly clear, and this is not negotiable. There are going to be adjustments made to the amount of rent you owe." Silence lay over the gathering like a blanket covering a corpse. Ann was the first to break the spell, and it was with sobbing.
"Your payments, beginning in just a few days on the first of the month and for every month thereafter, will be...." he hesitated while the tenants held their breath. "...zero dollars."
Uncomprehending stares joined the silence. Mouths hung open and foreheads wrinkled. One by one the friends and neighbors of this old man put two and two together. His days spent picking up pennies, nickels and quarters had paid off and not only for him. They were all the beneficiaries of thirty years of discipline and one act of generosity.
"How and why seem to be the big questions." He placed a hand on the back of a chair for support. "Your wellbeing, that goes for each and every one of you, has been –– a matter of interest –– to me for many years. That is why I did this. How did I manage to actually do it? That, my friends," and the old man smiled at this point, "is a matter of –– compound interest."
The next morning, the old man changed his routine. Coin hunting was a thing of the past, and he skipped his normal breakfast. He walked the hallways of the building and knocked on every door, making a master list of the most pressing needs. He moved along at a steady pace, not accepting the invitations to sit down for a cup of coffee. At least he declined all but one. Before knocking on the last door, he smoothed his thin hair and checked his breath.
Lovely Ann opened the door and stepped back to let him inside. Two place settings adorned the table top, and the aroma of brewing coffee along with a kiss on the cheek let him know he was truly welcome. Maybe he hadn't lost all his swagger after all.