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The old, heavyset Indian man sits outside the vegan café selling single long-stem roses.  He is clad in khaki and seems incongruous in Capitol Hill.  Patrons walking into the shared entryway nestled between Plum Bistro and La Spiga are accosted by his piercing voice.  At first, it sounds like he’s calling out “Excuse me?!”

If you make enough money to be eating at one of these locations, your first instinct is probably to pass him by without comment. Your eyes glaze over and your ears become plugged.  Unless you are a particularly benevolent member of society.  Or very curious.

Upon closer inspection, the cartoonish bouquet of individually wrapped long-stemmed roses becomes perplexing.  Collectively, the mass of roses could be a giant’s corsage.  Maybe he’s asking if you want to buy one of the many roses sitting next to him.

If you listen very carefully, you can discern the words coming out of his mouth in rapid speed and pitch.

“Red or PINK?!”

“Red or PINK?!”

“Red or PINK?!”

He asks this of everyone who enters.

“Red or PINK?!”

It has the percussive nature of a shot being sounded.  Or perhaps Tourettes.

Occasionally, the old, heavyset Indian man leaves his post and pile of roses to go smoke a cigarette by machine that dispenses parking stickers for street parking.  The cigarette is a meditation.  Breathing out smoke onto the dark, rainy winter night, he feels peaceful.

Then it’s back to the grind.  Back to screaming “Red or PINK?!”  Back to the never-ending deluge of Capitol Hill hipsters that unnerve him with their androgyny.  They are not his customers.  Usually, it’s middle-aged men who sneak out of either restaurant on the pretext of going to the bathroom.  The transaction is rushed in low-tones and if he’s lucky, they might not ask for change.

On a good night, he gets enough money to buy another pack of cigarettes.   Or to stop in the International District and pick up some curry on the bus ride back to the shelter in Pioneer Square.

On the coldest of winter nights, he thinks about buying a phone card to try and reach his daughter in Chicago.   Lila.   She has long since Americanized her name to Lily.  After he turned 60, he seemed to loose the gift of speech, so when he calls her, she recognizes his silence and will indulge his listening for fifteen or twenty minutes.

She talks about his grandchildren, whom he has never seen.  They are in school now.  The boy is seven and likes to draw airplanes.  The girl is 5 and likes to play in the mud.  Her husband’s dental practice is picking up, and she writes for newspapers and magazines.

“Hopefully, we can fly out to Seattle for the holidays, Dad.  Or maybe you can fly here.”

But they both know that isn’t likely.

“I’m still working on your spy story, Dad.  I’ll send it to you when it’s finished.  Is it still the same address?  Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, 318 2nd Avenue?”

He murmurs something sounds like yes and she is satisfied.

“Take care of yourself, Dad.  I love you.”

He does not feel like making one of these calls tonight.  Instead, he chooses cigarettes and curry.  They offer three meals a day at the shelter, but none of the food is as bold as curry.

He goes to his favorite little hole in the wall Indian place.  He carefully places all of his roses on the counter by the window and sits down.  The young Indian woman already knows his order and soon brings him a steaming bowl.

At first, he just smells.  Inhales coriander, ginger, chili, fennel.  Inhales childhood.  Inhales first love.  Inhales the birth of his daughter.  Inhales all the pleasant memories that are warm and simple.

When he is satisfied, he takes his first bite.  Spicy warmth and familiarity cascade past his tongue and down into his throat.  He savors every bite.  He licks the bowl clean.

He always leaves his waitress a pink rose.  At first, she protested politely.  Now she looks forward to the nights he comes into the restaurant.  He reminds her of her grandfather who passed away.  After the roses have lost their vitality, she hangs them upside down and dries the petals meticulously for some unknown purpose.

If it’s not too cold out, he will walk the eight blocks from the International District to Pioneer Square.  The khaki newsboy cap keeps his balding head warm.

He retires to his small grey room on the second floor and listens to spy novels on tape.  His favorites are those written by Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. He finds the tapes he wants by looking for the sticker with a red magnifying glass on the plastic spine.

He falls asleep to the escapades of James Bond and George Smiley and remembers fondly the adventures he had when he was young.

The next day he wakes up and does it all over again.  The morning visit to Seattle Public Library, followed by the bus ride up to Capitol Hill with his roses.

“Red or PINK?!”

“Red or PINK?!”

“Red or PINK?!”

Believe it or not, he is happy.  He is not alone.  He has his spy stories.  He has his roses.  He has Seattle.

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