Seven Weeks (An Homage to J. M. Coetzee)
— Fiction by Michele Tolela Myers



“It’s the genius of the American free enterprise system – to harness the extraordinary creativity and talent and industry of the American people with a system that is dedicated to creating tomorrow’s prosperity rather than trying to redistribute today's.” (Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, August 30, 2012)


I first saw her one early August morning on Riverside Park. A hazy and humid morning when the only things moving were the few runners in their wet t-shirts, plugs in their ears with little wires snaking into a phone or an ipod in their shorts pocket. From where I lay, a bench where I spend my nights, I watched them, my eyes semi-closed, but they didn’t see me: they ran looking straight ahead, without a smile, their arms bent at the elbow, pumping up and down. As if they were really getting somewhere. Why would they look at a bum like me in his sleeping bag, a dirty pinkish-brown affair with a broken zipper and a hood–like thing I pull over my head, with tears at the bottom, through which one of my feet sticks out?


She was startling. Startling because she looked at me and didn’t immediately look away. I kept my eyes half closed but I could see her just fine. I may be a crappy old tramp but I can tell and smell a beautiful woman any day. Particularly since she wore only the briefest shorts on legs so lithe I could imagine putting a finger on the ankle and slowly, slowly going all the way up where it is warm and wet. Startling because only in dreams anymore did I see such apparitions so scantily clad that so much skin and full breasts were revealed.


She nodded as she passed me and I began to smile, hoping she would stop. She did slow down but swallowed quickly and resumed her speed, fast now, and she crossed Riverside Drive at 113
, a block away and I lost her. I felt an ache creep over me. Something about being a broken man, about dying, about things torn and diminished, about golden skin. It was a week before I saw her again.


I pass the bum again. He evidently sleeps here. His big toe sticks out of the dirty sleeping bag, a grimy toe with an in-grown toenail. He faces out to the park, his knees bent close to his chest like a cold or frightened child. Maybe he is both, although August has been ghastly hot. I nod and I think he’s just smiled under his bushy beard, but I can’t be sure. I do notice something else today which breaks my concentration and, shit, I trip on an empty plastic water bottle. I pick it up and walk to the trash can a few feet away from the bum’s bench. It was a black thing around his neck, which on closer examination looks like a bow tie, not one with a simple hook in the back, but the type you actually have to knot yourself. It is immaculate and peeks out right from under the disheveled long and dirty hair, neither gray nor white nor brown, but a mix of the three.

Tucked under the bench, three bags. One huge blue plastic one, like an Ikea bag, packed full with a blanket on top. The other two are smaller, the kind grocery stores sell you when you want neither plastic nor paper. They too are filled to the rim, and a bottle of water sticks out of one of them.


He disturbs me. Why can’t he be somewhere else? Somewhere inside where I wouldn’t have to see him everyday, as if his mere presence called for some action on my part if I were the decent person I think I am. I am decent. I feel sorry for him. But there are so many of these bums, most of them crazy out of their mind, or drunk, or they smell terribly. They scare me. There are more of them, even in this Upper West Side neighborhood. What am I to do?

Week 2

“Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before. Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty. Look around you…

Our vision of an opportunity society stands in stark contrast to the current Administration’s policies that expand entitlements and guarantees, create new public programs, and provide expensive government bailouts. That road has created a culture of dependency, bloated government, and massive debt. Those policies have placed the federal government in the driver’s seat, rather than relying on energetic and entrepreneurial Americans to rebuild the economy from the ground up. Excessive taxation and regulation impede economic development. Lowering taxes promotes substantial economic growth and reducing regulation encourages business formation and job creation.” (Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, August 30, 2012)


I saw her again, this time later in the morning. Maybe she stopped running so early. I was drinking from my water bottle, sitting in the middle of the bench, my legs stretched in front of me. She walked past me, her black hair in a ponytail sticking out from the back of a baseball cap. You’re back, I said, and she nodded. It’s going to be hot, I continued in this desultory fashion, wondering what I could say to keep her here longer. Would you like a sip of my water? She declined. Nice bow tie, she added. I readjusted it. I like it loose, I said. Never could stand it squeezing my neck. I rummaged in my blue bag and pulled out an orange. Breakfast, I said. Want some? No, no you should have it, she said. I have more in the bag, I said, starting to peel the orange, and when I was done,

I got up to throw the peels out in the trashcan. Gotta be neat, I said, and I handed her half. Please, have some. She took it, sat on the end of the bench, and we ate in silence. I thought that was a beginning. I see you every morning, she said. You have no place to go? I laughed. Would you sleep on a bench if you had a place to go? That was a dumb question, I am sorry, she said. I wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, that I was harmless, that I was starved for company, but I didn’t know how to start that kind of conversation. It had been too long. The bow tie, she said, how did you get it? My father’s. He gave it to me for my first concert. That was true. Concert? She said. When? What did you play. Run on, I told her. You don’t want to know. Not a pretty story. What I meant was
if you have an hour to waste, I will tell you how I lost my “promising career,” as they used to say in the New York Times, in the one instant of a late night attack in the subway by three men who took my wallet and cell phone and shot me with a machine gun that blew my left hand to pieces and pierced my left lung. All they could sew back together was my thumb and my fourth finger. And there are not too many concertos for the right hand. Thanks for the orange, she said. And she walked away, moving her behind as if she wanted me to look.


I am working on my paper but I keep thinking about the bum. What happens to him in winter when New York gets bitter cold, when it snows, when the streets are slippery and the wind turns cheap umbrellas inside out and whips your face? There’s a bum sleeping on the steps of the Broadway Presbyterian Church at 114th and Broadway in the winter. Why don’t they let him in at night? Surely God wouldn’t mind. Maybe it’s my bum. My bum?

Jake has been in a foul mood all week. He wanted me to go with him to his family’s summer home in Nantucket, but I told him I had to finish my paper. Why can’t you work there, he said. We’ll leave you alone. Truth is, I don’t like his parents, they make me feel I am everything they don’t want for their son: a Jew, a professor, a liberal, too sexy for their taste, although I have often caught Jake’s father eyeing me when he thought no one was looking. Jake decided to stay but he kept complaining about heat and the humidity until I finally screamed at him to shut up or just go and let me be. He shut up.


Yesterday morning, when I came back from my run, he was in the shower. You came home early, he said. Something wrong? No, just the heat. Too muggy, I said. He came out of the bathroom, still wet, with only a towel wrapped around his hips, and I noticed he was turning pudgy. He eats crap all day at the office, doesn’t exercise, and downs one beer after another when he gets home. He still looks cute even after five years together, tight in a Queen size bed, hot stuff between us, and I was tempted to yank his towel off. But I was sweaty and I escaped him when he made a move to pull me to him. I need to shower, I said, I smell like the bum on the bench. He shrugged. He stays away from bums. He’s pissed there are so many of them, and I’ve heard him say over and over that he

wished Giuliani were running the city again: at least he got rid of the fuckers. He didn’t care what the Mayor did with them, at least they weren’t an eyesore where he lived, where he worked, and everywhere in between. He can’t stand the ones who hold their hand for money, to eat they say, but he says it’s for booze or cigarettes, and why should he feed their habits? Some of them are completely out of it, talking nonsense, hallucinating, and making pests of themselves on the sidewalks, coming so close you can smell their piss and sweat and grime and it turns his stomach.


“Romney picked Ryan,” he said. I didn’t respond. He thinks I am a typical academic head, full of the old liberal shit. He thinks I don’t get debt and default and that I ignore the fact that America is in hock to China up to its eyeballs, and if the Chinese ever stopped buying American bonds, our economy would collapse. He is pissed at me because I refuse to believe that the path to freedom is to cut government expenses and entitlement programs, and revive America with incentives for those willing to work hard and take risks. Read: lower taxes on the wealthy. He thinks he does real work in his office on the Street, unlike me and my crap paper I need to finish so I can get tenured at Barnard.

Week 3

“This year’s election is a chance to restore the proven values of the American free enterprise system. We offer our Republican vision of a free people using their God-given talents, combined with hard work, self-reliance, ethical conduct, and the pursuit of opportunity, to achieve great things for themselves and the greater community. Our vision of an opportunity society stands in stark contrast to the current Administration’s policies that expand entitlements and guarantees, create new public programs, and provide expensive government bailouts. That road has created a culture of dependency, bloated government, and massive debt.” Preamble to the Republican Platform, 2012.


Someone left a New York Times in the trash. I read that Romney picked Ryan for VP. I wonder what these two think about bums? Or do they not worry about us because we’re only jetsam to be disposed of? But where? By whom? They can’t arrest us unless we break a law. Is sleeping in the street against the law? I remember waiting for a train at Penn Station when I was still giving concerts, and I saw two police officers walk a bum away from the large waiting area where he was sitting quietly on the floor, his two bags next to him. I wondered then why they couldn’t let him sit where it was warm, but instead sent him outside to sit where it was freezing.


She hasn’t been here all week. Maybe I scared her off. I gathered my bags and started going toward 116
th Street and climbing the hill up to Broadway. I have to walk or my legs will start twitching again. I went through the Columbia gates and made my way toward the Low Library steps and sat under Alma Mater. And I saw her run to me with a brown bag in her hand and a grin on her face.

I saw you on Broadway, she said. Here, a tall latte from Starbucks and a couple of blueberry muffins. Don’t sit too close, I said, I stink. Why don’t you go to a shelter, she asked. They have showers. Nope, I said, too many rules, you can’t smoke, lines for everything, and most of them are full anyway. So what do you do when –– when you need –– You mean when I need to take a piss or shit? Uh huh, she said and blushed. The subway, if I can get to the station on 57th street on the NQR lines. One of the few with a public toilet. Do you know, I told her, that there were 1676 public toilets in the NY subway in 1940 and only 28 of them now, and half of them are broken and the rest are a stinking mess? If I can’t get there, I go in the park. I try to wait until dark. I have little green plastic bags, you know, like people with dogs. I pick up the shit and put it in a trashcan. Sometimes the church on 114
th lets me use their toilet. I guess God doesn’t like

you to crap in the street. Not a lot of people worry about this, you know. You’re the first one to ask.


The homeless man is gone. I have this terrible feeling of dread and disappointment as I sit on his bench. It’s still wet from the early morning humidity. What did I expect? A polite conversation? Another shared orange? Have I gone crazy? What possessed me to stop at Starbucks and buy him coffee? Why should I be angry? Did I expect that one short conversation and I should have his forwarding address? But it’s not anger I feel, it’s more like grief, which is bizarre. What did I lose? There’s nothing between me and the man that could remotely amount to a relationship.


Jake would say it was my do-gooder side, the side he despises that he sees mostly as an attempt to obliterate the guilt I feel for what I have: my
education, my job, my money, my privilege. He has no such guilt. And therefore no need to assuage his conscience: he makes money the oldfashioned American way, he loves to say, and he quotes J. P. Getty’s advice on how to get rich: “Get up early, work hard, and strike oil.” And he laughs at the joke which isn’t so funny anymore. And he says the liberals have lost their sense of humor if they ever had one.


But I didn’t buy coffee for the homeless man because of guilt. Maybe it was the irony of his sharing the orange with me. But now he’s gone and I feel like a fool. I throw the coffee in the trashcan and slowly make my way home. Before crossing Riverside Drive I look North to make sure there are no cars coming my way, and notice a tall man with a bluebag hanging from his left shoulder and two bags in his right hand reaching the corner at 116th.


Jake’s right, I am crazy to get involved with a lunatic. So should I go home and chalk it off to misplaced social guilt? But it isn’t misplaced. It isn’t all right that a real human being has nowhere to go but the streets. If this isn’t my problem, then whose is it? I walk past 113th and further down to Starbucks for the second time this morning. There’s still not much of a line and I order the tallest latte, two large blueberry muffins, and grab a fistful of sugar packets, some napkins and a spoon. I hurry back up toward Columbia and finally find him sitting by the Alma Mater statue, his bags next to him. Campus security hasn’t spotted him yet. I walk up the steps and hand him the brown bag.

He smiles. Hi, pretty runner, he says. I sit by him. They aren’t going to let you sit here for long, you know, I say. Yeah. I’ll move, he says as he bites into a muffin. Do you mind if I sit with you, I ask. Suit yourself, he says. Young women don’t usually talk to me. I stink.

Week 4

“The Republican narrative is that all of us who amount to anything are completely self-made. One of our greatest Democratic chairmen, Bob Strauss, used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself, but it ain't so.


We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think we're all in this together is a better philosophy than you're on your own.” Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention, September 5, 2012


You know what, she said, why don’t you come to my place and get a good shower. I’ll fix us a real breakfast. I looked at her like she was mad and shook my head. No lady, I can’t do that. For a second she looked relieved. Maybe the thought occurred to her I could be psychotic and she could end up robbed or dead. But then her face got sunny again. I mean it, she said. You’re a nice lady, I said, thank you for the coffee. We can do some laundry if you want, she added. What for? I asked. It all gets dirty again fast. No. You go on your way, now. I got up and walked away. I can’t become her project. I have nothing real to give her except maybe the feeling she is doing a good thing. I won’t be used. But she ran after me. Come to my apartment. It’s safe, she said.


Is your boyfriend going to be upset? I asked. Should he be? She said. This was

after breakfast, after I had changed into clean clothes. She had done two loads of laundry while I cleaned the bathroom spotless. I had shaved, trimmed my beard, washed and combed my hair and folded my three shirts, four t-shirts, four pairs of socks, four pairs of boxers, two pairs of chinos, two pairs of corduroys, my two towels and four blankets. I smelled of the boyfriend’s aftershave, which I found in his medicine cabinet, my clothes smelled clean for the first time in months. Wow, she said when I came out. You look so much younger.



The doorman doesn’t start his shift until one pm. The lobby’s empty and the elevator is there. I am relieved. For the first time, I smell him. A foul and bitter smell. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing that. He looks around. Nice place, he says. Do you live here by yourself? No, I live with my boyfriend. We’re engaged.


He stands in the bathroom while I gather one of my disposable razors, Jake’s shaving cream, a new toothbrush, a towel, a washcloth, and Jake’s white terrycloth robe. There, I say, there’s shampoo and gel in the shower. Take your time. I’m about to say that no one is coming, but I stop myself.

He says thank you. Are you really going to make breakfast? Yes, I say. Scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, muffins and coffee. When I hear the water run, I see Jake’s horrified face if he knew and I hear what he’d say: a complete stranger occupying his shower, using his fucking robe? Did I want to be robbed, or raped, or killed? Had I gone berserk? But I am not afraid. In fact I feel calm. Reaching out to someone in need isn’t scary. What is frightening is the notion that homeless people aren’t real people, just cockroaches to be disposed of. Isn’t that what the Nazis thought of the Jews?

I can’t believe the transformation. Not even fifty is my guess. He asks if Jake’s going to be upset. Yes, I say. Why, he asks. Isn’t it obvious, I say: Because I let a stranger into our home. You mean a bum, he says. No, a homeless person, I say feeling like an idiot. Your fiancé doesn’t like homeless types, does he? What about you? Some of the homeless men I see in the streets scare me, I say. And I don’t? he asks. Not right now, I say. But I did, and you were right to be scared, he says. You don’t know if I am off my meds, you don’t know that I won’t get violent, you don’t know zip about me. Tell me then, I say. You can begin by telling me your name. Mine is Trish. No, I am going, he says. You can come back if you need a bathroom and a shower, I say. You mean every morning? he asks. Maybe not every morning, I say but – How often should I be clean, he interrupts. Once a week? Once a month, every three days? See it gets complicated, Trish. So lets leave it at that. Thanks for today. It was great. You’ve done a good deed. I am grateful. Bye. And he is gone.

Week 5

“But when all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation…a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future…

My grandparents were given the chance to go to college and buy their home —their own home and fulfill the basic bargain at the heart of America's story, the promise that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules, from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.” (Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, September 6, 2012)


I wasn’t going back. I thought she had problems with the boyfriend. It didn’t matter that I dreamed about taking a shower with her.


I have been working on my paper all week. It’s a study on temporal discounting: how the future is discounted in economic decision-making, making risk appear less than it really is. My Harvard colleague and I have been applying the theory to the banking crisis of 2008 and our findings are robust. Jake dismissed them. He thinks risk is precisely the business he is in and why he makes a ton of well-deserved money. The less regulation the better and the more money he and people like him make. He feels entirely justified: capital is what makes the economy run, and banking is the mechanism to move it and invest it. It’s all global now and he sees no problem except for regulators’ interference. He doesn’t seem to remember the Savings and Loan debacle of 1989. Only scant years after deregulation gave them the same capabilities as investment banks while letting them off the hook from the Glass-Steagall Act, they went belly up. That disaster cost taxpayers $124 billions and the S&Ls $29 billions. Just a hiccup, Jake told me, a few people making bad decisions. It happens. Cost of doing business.

Week 6

“If you reject the notion that this nation's promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election.

If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election.” (Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, September 6, 2012)


I had a very precise sense of her physical being, I remembered what she smelled like, I sensed what she would weigh in my arms, and I had no idea what went on in her head. I saw her once coming out of her building at the arm of the chubby boyfriend, nice enough face, good clothes, broad shoulders. He didn’t have the gravitas I expected she would go for. I was obsessed by her, how she spent her days, why she was not running in the morning any more, if he had made her see how reckless she had been with me.



Where’s my robe? Jake asks. In the dryer I say. Why did you wash it, it wasn’t dirty, he says. Actually, it was, I say. I had someone up here this morning, who needed to wear it. Jake looks confused. Who? Who was here? The man who sleeps in the park, I say, bracing myself. You mean the fucking bum, he shouts? You had him come here and –– I don’t believe this. Are you nuts? Do you know how dangerous this is? A complete stranger who’s probably crazy? If you want to be a bleeding heart, why don’t you just spend time in a soup kitchen. It’s a hell of a lot safer. But for God’s sake, don’t bring these–– These what, Jake? Losers, vermin, moochers, crazies? He doesn’t have a place to live. He doesn’t have a place to take a dump and wash himself. Is it too much to ask that once in a while someone think of him as a man and not an abandoned wild dog? We actually do better with abandoned dogs. They sometimes get adopted. And that’s what you want, he yells: to adopt him? I didn’t sign up for that. This isn’t anything I remotely want to do, he yells. I’m not asking you to do anything, I say. Oh, yes you are, Miss do-gooder. This is OUR apartment. We share it, we both pay the rent, the utilities, the cable, the works. That’s our deal, right? I have a right to expect the place not to be invaded by strays who stink and leave their grime behind. You have no right to do this on your own.


There is a silence.


I cleaned up, Jake. There is no trace of him. I don’t see why I can’t help him once in a while, I say
softly. Oh, once in a while, now? So it’s not a one-time thing. Jesus, this is fucking crazy. I can’t let you do that. How are you going to stop me? I ask.

He gets up from the couch. You can’t be serious, he says, his mouth so tight I can’t even see his lips.

Funny how things hang in the balance when you least expect them. A robe left in a dryer, an on the spot decision I didn’t know I was prepared to make until I made it to help a man, and here we are, Jake and I, fighting about rights, about my apartment or his, and whether he can tell me what to do. I don’t like his face. It has turned red and mean, as if he wanted to shake me to get me to come to my senses, or rather to his senses. We had agreed we would never let our political views get in the way of the relationship, and difficult as it had been, we had managed it.

Jake, I am serious. This man is not dangerous. He may not even be on the bench across the street any more. But if he is, I want to be able to help him clean up once in a while and give him a hot meal. It’s not a lot to ask, is it? I can’t let you do it, Trish, he says. I can’t let you bring strangers into our place. I feel violated. You don’t see the danger but it is real. What’s real, I say, is your fucking disregard for those who are not as privileged as you. I can’t believe you pay more attention to your mother’s dog than to a poor man who has no place to go. That’s disgusting. And it is actually my place. Barnard rents it to me not to you. You don’t have to pay your half of the rent if you don’t want to. You can move.

Week 7

“There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it…


“These are people who pay no income tax… So my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives…


“We’ll see – without actually doing anything – we’ll actually get a boost in the economy.” (Romney’s speech given at a $50,000 a plate fundraiser in May 2012, video made public by Mother Jones magazine on September 18 and quoted by Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column of September 19, 2012.)


She came by this morning and sat next to me. I was reading Coetzee’s
Elizabeth Costello. She looked tired and drawn. Did you read it? I asked. No, she said. I read Disgrace and Diary of a Bad year. I loved both. Right up there with Roth. Ha, I said, and went fishing in my bag. Here, The Human Stain, my all-time favorite. She nodded. I didn’t come to talk about books, she said. Jake and I have been fighting. First time. I mean first serious fight. How serious, I asked. Like he is moving out, she said. She hid her face. I don’t know, she said. I felt he always had my back, but he doesn’t any more. He’s pulled away. Like the way we’ve argued about this election. It was different four years ago. He didn’t vote for Obama, but we could laugh about cancelling each other out. This time, he is so far out on the right I don’t understand him anymore. I am the one with a Ph.D in economics, and he talks to me as if I knew nothing, understood nothing. And he doesn’t like bums, I said. No, she said. I saw the tears running on her face. And I don’t even know your name, she said. Matt, I said. Matt Marciano. I used to be a pianist.


Jake tells me I have to choose between him and the bum, and it shouldn’t be so difficult. Because if it is, then he is out of here. I am stunned. How could one shower and one breakfast weigh so much in his mind, I ask him. Because it seems to weigh that much in yours, he says. But there is nothing personal between this man and me, I say. That’s not true, he says. He’s watched me in the last weeks, and I seem to be obsessed by the man. If I don’t see it, then maybe I should talk to a shrink and figure out what’s going on. But he isn’t going to sit around and watch me make an ass out myself. He’ll be in Nantucket for the next couple of weeks and if I change my mind I can join him there. If not, he’ll pick up his stuff when he returns.

Michelle Tolela Myers has published extensively: non fiction books that have been best sellers in their markets, scholarly articles, essays, and opinion editorials on education published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. She has also published short stories in The Reading Room and Global City Review. She was born in Morocco, grew up and was educated in Paris, and moved to the United States for graduate work. She has lived here since then. In 2007, she was named a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur by President Chirac, the highest honor bestowed by the French government. She lives in Manhattan. She has finished a novel and is looking for an agent.