The Refugee

by Isaac Eustice

The Refugee

By Isaac Eustice

In Los Angeles, when I wasn't working or riding a long procession of buses and trains, I

spent my time reading and writing outside cafés on Wilshire Boulevard. I wrote by hand, in a mole-

skin notebook I took along in my tattered backpack along with packs of cigarettes and dog-eared

paperbacks of Shakespeare, Dante, and William Burroughs.

One crisp, bright Sunday afternoon I sat outside a Starbucks at a small table with a cigarette

burning and a triple-shot mocha to fuel my thoughts. A city-wide state of emergency had recently

been declared due to a general migration of the homeless from Downtown and Skid-Row outward

into the more upstanding parts of town inhabited by the middle-class. My roommate told me they

were fleeing the violence of the inner city. "If you ever want to know if an area is dangerous, see if

there are any bums, they only sleep where it's safe. You won't see any bums in South Central."

Being new to the big city, and overly agreeable, I was a sucker for the bums' hustle, giving

away up to ten dollars a day to any who asked, despite the natives' frequent warnings against

this. The sight of a clueless newcomer naively feeding the pestilent bums provoked outrage and

disgust in the exasperated Angelenos, to whom the homeless problem was a kind of plague.

The fragrant tendrils of my cigarette went up like a smoke signal on this particular Sunday,

drawing swarms of beggars to my table. They staggered over like zombies in ragged clothes,

reeking of liquor and urine and sun-dried sweat. "Lemme get a cig off you man." Within fifteen

minutes I had supplied the entire block with cigarettes. I was about to settle back into my writing

when I noticed someone leaning against the wall beside the Starbucks: a tall, thin girl in a leather

motorcycle jacket with a shaved head and olive skin. She had the listless appearance of a homeless

person, but she was of a different class than your classic dirty wino or schizo. She was about my age,

in skinny jeans, Doc Martins, her eyes beautifully sad and kind. Our gazes met, and she walked over.

"Can I have a cigarette?" she asked, "Sorry, I know those bums probably took most of

them." She spoke with a Middle Eastern accent, but her English was good.

"It's alright," I said, "I can get more," and handed her a cigarette, and my lighter.

"You shouldn't give in to them," she said, "they'll take everything you have."

"Well I've bummed a lot of cigarettes in my life," I said.

"Can I sit with you?" She asked, looking around nervously.

"Sure!"

"Thank you," she said, sitting down, "you have been homeless too?"

"Yes, I ran away a lot when I was a teenager and I've been homeless many times since then,

because of addictions."

"I'm homeless right now," she said, "I have a job, but I just got evicted from my apartment,

I couldn't afford rent."

"It's expensive to live here," I said, "where do you work?"

"Starbucks, right there," she said.

"Well, at least you have a job. How old are you?"

"Twenty-seven," she said, "and you?"

"Twenty-three,"

"Ah, we are the same age. What are you writing?"

"A short story."

"I used to write stories too," she said, "but it's been a long time."

"You should! You seem like you have stories to tell. Where are you from?"

"Syria," she said, "I came over during the civil war."

"Oh wow. Do you have family here?"

"They died in Syria. In the war."

"I'm sorry," I said, feeling ungrateful and selfish in the presence of such human tragedy. "I

hear a lot about your country on the news, but I don't know what to believe. What caused the civil

war?"

"There has always been violence, but things got worse when the military took over," she

said. We smoked in silence a while.

"Life is crazy," I said, later. "sometimes I don't understand it."

"Life is hard," she said, "but God uses hardship to make us who we are. You have been

homeless, addicted, but here you are writing. God used these things to make you a man."

"I like to think that's true," I said, "you should definitely write," and we were silent again. I

marveled at how, despite the religious, cultural, and linguistic differences, the two of us could speak

so clearly and comfortably.

There was a convenience store beside the Starbucks and a drunken bum burst out of it

suddenly, staggering badly, clutching a Big Gulp which sloshed out red-liquid down the sides onto

his clothes. He charged straight for our table, demanding a cigarette. The Syrian shot up in her chair,

glaring fiercely and shouted, "leave him alone, get out of here!" He shuffled off like a beaten dog.

"They have no respect," she said, "you can't let them walk all over you,"

"Thank you," I said, and we sat together watching the flow of traffic down Wilshire

Boulevard.

A bearded, bespectacled man came down the sidewalk towards us in traditional Islamic garb

which drew to mind images of Abraham. He said something to the girl in quick, guttural Arabic, and

she replied. In the middle of their exchange he turned to me and said, "I'm sorry to interrupt," and

went on in Arabic. Between a stream of incomprehensible phrases, I heard him say, "Islamic

Center," and he pointed off behind them. The girl stood up and touched my arm and said: "I'll be

right back," looking very serious, and followed him down the street. The two of them turned a

corner and were gone.

I smoked the rest of my cigarettes and went home to the Gaylord Hotel, where I lay down

on my friend's sofa, thinking of the ancient Middle-Eastern tradition that sometimes God visited

you as the Stranger.

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