A Starfish in Benton Harbor

I met a starfish yesterday. I mean, she was a girl, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The starfish was behind a hipster bathroom door when I met her. The door was cold and heavy and industrial, and the starfish was a complete mystery. She was also crying. No, she was sobbing. She was a stranger. I guess we both were.

The starfish and I were in the bathroom of a trendy place. I just came in to pee. It’s what I do. I drink a lot of… of everything, and therefore I urinate. Everywhere. Well, not everywhere. I am rather fond of American plumbing where fluids are focused, and bathrooms are where I go, so to speak.

Anyway, I was eating Old People supper in a place I didn’t really belong. Too young, too hip. But, damn, the hummus was killer.  These kids can cook. This particular trendy place called this appetizer “Loaded Hummus” and it came with a bunch of those…what do call them…. VEGETABLES. Tri-colored carrots, bi-curious peppers, LGBT celery. Wasted on me. All I want with hummus is bread. And maybe a straw. O.P. Supper is at 5:00 o’clock. Old People eat early. And sometimes they pee.

Fine. They pee a lot.

The waitress’s name was Kelly. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, and everyone around me was Irish. Even if they weren’t. I had walked  up some brick stairs in the middle of the afternoon to a sort of restaurant, because that’s what Old People  do.

I say “sort of” because the restaurant had a menu, but a very confusing service. I am old. I am used to a Denny’s rhythm. I go in, I sit down, somebody brings me water, somebody takes my order. But that’s not what happens in trendy places. You go in, you sit down, and people ignore you. That’s the new math.

After 10 or a thousand minutes, I finally walked up to the bar, where Kelly told me I could have anything I wanted, as long as it was micro-brewed beer. What I wanted was ice water and vodka. In separate glasses. Kelly dispensed my water from a McDonald’s cooler. (I wish I were making this up.) Vodka was not on the menu. Kelly said, “Do you want food?” I said yes, not knowing that eating would actually get me in trouble.

Kelly the waitress brought me ice water. Kelly the waitress was wearing a green shirt. Kelly the waitress knew I had a wallet. It’s really the only reason I was allowed to be in there. And then I went to the ladies’ room. See above.

A voice from behind the trendy iron door: “I loaned him 50 bucks.”

Me: “Okay.”

The voice: “I’m sorry. Do you need the handicap stall? I’m just in here crying.”

Me: “I’m not THAT old.”

I said some gentle but irrelevant things to the stranger in the confessional. I left the ladies’ room having pissed away an opportunity for kindness, so to speak. I walked back to my table to eat my mac and cheese and drink a glass of boxed wine. I waited for the starfish to come out, knowing that we weren’t done.

The starfish exited the industrial cage. She was young. She was wearing an expensive coat and cheap shoes. Someone had cared for her at one time. The starfish sat at a cold, dark table and poked at her phone. She cried some more, and then she left the trendy brick place.

I ate all the hummus. I did not eat all the mac. I sort of suck at restaurants.

I paid my bill and left. I got in my car and started to drive home. (I have a car. It’s paid for. And insured.) And there she was, the starfish, on a street in front of a dead building, playing with her phone. Trendy places are not always in great parts of towns. This particular brick warehouse with the great hummus and the bad wine was in the center of a shitty dying city. I pulled my car (I have a car) into an abandoned parking lot. I got out of my car. (I have a car.) I walked around to the front of the dead building where the Starfish was thumbing her bloodless phone.

I walked up to her and said “Hey,” because I’m creative like that. The Starfish was frightened. She is, after all, street people. Street people distrust folks like me with haircuts and credit cards. Her eyes got big and she began her escape.

Me: “Don’t run!”

The Starfish turned toward me. She was beautiful, despite the cigarette. Blonde hair, blue eyes, perfect skin. Thin, under a knit cap. Too beautiful for this much sadness.

Me: “I just want you to have a good night.”

I handed her two 20s and a 10. Just like the stupid guy who ruined her day. Her year. Her life.

She cried some more. Her tears were pretty, pretty in the way of young people.

Me: “I heard you in the bathroom.”

Starfish: “Kelly was mean to me.”

Me: “Okay.”

Starfish: “All I wanted was a bowl of soup. Maybe half a bowl of soup. But she wouldn’t do it.”

Me: “Kelly was busy. It wasn’t personal.”

She looked down at the folding money I’d handed her. Her tears fell on the sidewalk. She couldn’t even hit the cash, even though we were trying to write a movie.

Starfish: “What’s your name?”

It didn’t matter what my name was, but it was Saint Patrick’s Day, and this was poetry.

Me: “Erin.”

She nodded. And cried some more.

Me: “What’s yours?”

Starfish: “Meagan. My name is Meagan.”

Me: “Of course it is.”

She leaned in for the hug. It lasted too long.

Me: “I just want you to have a good night.”

And I got in my car and drove home. To my house. Where I have a house.

One day an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with starfish, millions of starfish dying on the sand, washed up by the high tide.

As he walked, the old man came upon a young boy who was bending down and throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

The old man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy answered, “I’m saving these starfish, sir. They are drowning in the sun.”

The old man scowled, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you possibly make?”

The boy picked up another starfish, tossed it into the water, and smiled at the man. “I made a difference to that one.”

Erin Waugh, 19 March 2017, “True Stories Told in the Key of E-flat.”