I have a secret. I see colors.
I don’t mean that I see the leaves turning red and orange and yellow in the fall or the glitzy flashing neon signs blinking over the supermarkets and restaurants after dark. Everyone sees those colors, and frankly, they’re not very impressive, as far as colors go. They’re faded. Washed out, like paint in dishwater. I barely notice them anymore.
No, I see people. Their soul colors. The ones they hide from everyone else.
I don’t think they’d like it if they knew I could see. Colors are private things. People hide them underneath bulky jackets and floppy hats, behind newspapers and smartphones. They like to believe their disguises are enough to mask their colors from the world, and they are, mostly.
Just . . . not from me.
The colors are the first thing I see when I wake up on my park bench, or behind whatever dumpster happened to be handy when I finished hawking my wares. People are everywhere in the city, in every alley, packed into every street and every building. It’s why I came here in the first place. I came for the colors.
Mostly, I came to see if I could change them.
If I was a better businessman, I would find one place to sell, maybe right outside the subway station or in the park, where people are more likely to browse through my wares instead of hurrying by.
I can’t do it. I’ve tried. But I like to move around. To see different places. People who live uptown have different colors from the ones that live in the slums across the canal. Different, and yet, strangely, very much the same too. It’s all the same, no matter what city I’m sleeping in. It’s only rarely that I catch a glimpse of a color that startles me.
In the springtime, I sell lilacs and lilies on my corner, or paper tigers and cranes and frogs, or kites painted with stars and snakes and dancing women. I’ve sold perfume a few times, in the fall, and when Christmas rolls around, I sell holly and snowflakes.
Today, I’ve got balloons.
Balloons are really my favorite to sell. People don’t know, but I always try to give them a color that matches their own. It’s usually the one they ask for anyway, and I like to see them walking away, tracking green or blue or lemon-yellow on the sidewalks and carrying a balloon of the same color.
That’s really the funny thing about colors. They mean different things for different people. Blue might mean contentment for one person and sadness for another. Red can mean a thousand different things. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the colors over the years, and I can usually guess. But sometimes, even now, I’m dead wrong.
The first sale I make is to a couple. They’re holding hands, and he’s getting his red all over her. Bright, cheerful, infatuated red. It’s dusted on her hands like pollen, on her cheek where he’s kissed her, in her hair. I try not to laugh.
She’s happy too. Powder blue. A little less passionate, a little softer, but very, very much in love. I sell them the right colored balloons and watch them wander off.
The next is an old woman with a walker and white hair. She smells like cinnamon, and everything about her glows coral pink, with a few gold flecks here and there and some silver in her eyes. I sit and talk with her for an hour or so, listening to her stories and admiring the colors. When she leaves, at last, I send a pink balloon with her and refuse the dollar she tries to press on me. I should be paying her.
Three rich colors in one morning means a good day, but the next customer is flat gray. A man with a suit. I think his tie might have been red when he bought it. He buys the balloon without looking at me, mumbling something about his daughter, and walks away. I give him a green one because it’s my strongest color, but before he’s gone ten steps it’s as gray as he is. He won’t notice, of course, but I do.
It takes me an hour to get over that one. I’m hoping for a better color next, but the woman who appears is gray too. Soft, ashen gray, with a little knot of painful black beneath her left shoulder. She’s got a toddler with her, a little boy who is clinging to her hand and sucking his thumb.
I love seeing children’s colors. They’re confused, because children aren’t one thing or another quite yet. He’s got orange and yellow and silver and green and a grumpy, tantrum red blotched all over him, like he got into the paint box and made a mess.
I’d laugh, but he’s holding her hand. His little fingers and his wrist—all the way down to his shoulder, really—is as gray as she is. And I don’t feel like laughing.
She seems to know, somehow, what her color is doing to his. She won’t meet my eyes, and she fumbles in her purse looking for a coin to buy his balloon with. I let the man with the fading tie go, but this time I’m more prepared, and she isn’t in a hurry. I get her talking, first about her son, about preschool and peanut butter in his hair and sleepless nights. Then about herself. About the man who abused her and the leaky faucet that her landlord won’t fix and the job that hasn’t paid her bills in two months. Her son plays with his balloon while we talk. He gets purple on his fingers.
When she’s finally run out of words, I give her a balloon too, a sea green one, and the money I made selling roasted chestnuts the week before Christmas. I’ve been saving it since. I wasn’t sure for what until just now.
When she cries, her tears leave splotches of color on her hands and cheeks. Sea green. She tries to protest, but there’s a reason I sleep on park benches and behind dumpsters. The money is definitely for her.
She’s still gray when she walks away, and that black knot doesn’t disappear. It’ll take more than a little extra cash and some kindness to dig that out. But the balloon doesn’t lose its color, and there’s a little sea green nestled around the black where her heart should be.
I’ve always liked sea green. Everyone is different, of course, but I’ve found that sea green usually has a bit of hope about it. If I look hard enough.