What follows is not an op-ed piece but a short story that more or less wrote itself. They do that sometimes.
Parable of the King’s Bridge
And it came to pass that the Old Man, foul for protection, foolish by design, became tired and longed for rest.
“I shall lay me down under the overpass there by the Federal Building,” he said. And he took his pack and his Thermos and he went to the place where the walkers passed above him, from one building to the next. He laid himself down, and he saw there was a vent from which poured warm, sweet air into the January chill. And it was good.
Each two hours did the Old Man, putrid for defense, sick by misfortune, move himself carefully away from the path, for officers of the law enforced the decree that no man neither any woman should lie on the vents or streets of the city. And so it continued throughout the day.
Nevertheless, the Old Man grew ill from the rotted gall which passed for wine, consumed for warmth and comfort and an ancient desire. In the fourth hour of the afternoon, the man roused himself not from the way but remained while the watch kept its rounds.
And it came to pass that an officer of the law remarked to his fellows that the man seemed too still and might have left this life for another, which should be a blessing to the Old Man who smelled and ranted and hungered and drank the vile poison of his choosing. The officer called through the heavens and asked for the help of his brothers and sisters in touching this miscreant who stirred not.
Answering his call, other officers of the law careened through the concrete canyons of the city and inquired of their brother what had come to pass. For it was forbidden of both rich and poor alike that any should sleep beneath the bridge from one building to the next, and none should partake of the warm sweet upsweep of air.
And the first officer said that the Old Man might have slipped from this life and should be moved so that his body would not further offend those who elsewise should walk in the way.
A sister officer set her face in stone and said that she would wake the man if the dead could be waked. And she went and shook him harshly and called a name, though she knew not his. The man roused not. And another officer, a youth, began to the see that the man was but ill. And the first officer said that the man should be taken to the porch in the city wherein worked physicians who might care for him for a time before he was returned once more to the streets where he would dwell for the rest of his days.
And it came to pass that the Old Man was taken up into the officer’s vehicle and the air was allowed to enter so that his stench should not remain within it. And the officers left with the man to take him to the care of the physicians who would learn his name and give him broth and white sheets and implore him to get himself to a shelter for the rest of the harsh winter. Yet the Old Man would not go. He remembered the sweet warm air and could not yield himself to the effluvium of the shelters though the city should plummet into the depths of cold and ice.
And it came to pass that another man, from his high window in the canyon of steel and glass and concrete, watched the hours of the Old Man. “I thank all powers that be that I am not as that Old Man in the street,” he prayed. “For I cleanse from me the sweat of my brow and bathe my body each day that I live, and I drink not the contamination that enters his body and passes vilely into the gutters of the city. I taint not myself with herbs that are not of exquisite refinement. And I sleep not under bridges.” And through the day, he sought his papers with diligent concern and called heartily and happily upon his brothers and sisters throughout the land. And he worked his puzzles and games upon the game master that blinked and blessed him although for the sake of secrecy the sound was not had.
And it came to pass that the fellows of the man high above the street remembered that it was the day on which he celebrated his birth. And they did give thanks for his presence among them, bringing all manner of fruits and meats and sweet things to consume. The man ate and rejoiced and was glad. And the man did strive not to sleep after the feast for such was forbidden.
As the day was ending, the man and his fellows made light of the Old Man, fetid by choice, who had been removed from the grate of redolent air. And they said he must know not the laws of the city which forbade that he should sleep under the bridge. And the man, whose birth would be further extolled with the partaking of effulgent glasses of golden nectar in the hours of twilight, said with mirth that the man knew not the eleventh commandment.
And the man reached low into his leathern pouch and removed a placard onto which had been engraved: “11. Thou shalt look busy.” And the laughter was loud in the company of those who sat with the man.
Yet in the night the man dreamt of white bedclothes. And he saw himself and all his fellows covered with their sepulchral stillness. And in the dawn the man vowed not to waste his time upon the earth, but to do good. He would seek out the Old Man from below the bridge and offer him of his silver and lift him gently, when next he saw him. And he would carry him unto those who could serve him meat and fruits and warm drinks. His thoughts were kind and righteous toward the man, for he had forgotten the smell, fetid for protection, awful from neglect. His vow seemed sure though he shared it not.
But lo, in this day was the leaving of the princely head of his fellows, and all was in preparation. Again were brought the fine meats and things of rich sweetness. The man remembered himself once more and wondered if he himself might gain in power and influence with his fellows. He uttered high words and praise, full of much feeling, about his own great deeds, and inscribed them to those who reigned above him. And his vow of compassion was forgotten when he was found worthy to advance in station, to the unknowing sorrow of many unto whom he might have done that which was good.
Yea, as the years passed, it became time for the Old Man to go down to his grave. Death came for him as all knew it might, on a cold night as he lay himself under a bridge. And there were none to mourn him as he joined his generation of paupers beneath the earth.
In his old age, the other man was not taken down to the street or cast out under a bridge. And when he went down to his grave, he joined the Old Man beneath the earth, the Old Man having been there for many years. In the days before his passing, the man had grown weak and silent, in spite of his wealth and former joys. He remembered not in what paths he had failed though there were many.
And as his days grew short, he cried out, “What lack I yet?” Though he heard not a voice, his eyes fell upon the words of the inscription which he once thought held such wisdom: Thou shalt look busy. Lo, he could do so no more. And the commandment with no number, yea, the one more great than them all, came to his mind: Thou shalt love. For he had loved those by whom he was surrounded but believed, as he grew near his end that he could have, and yea, surely, he could have loved more.