Charlie’s Blue Box and Other Absurdities

Story by Gaby Strnad

One million dollars. That’s one dollar plus six whole zeros behind it. A fairly abstract concept for the majority of human kind.

So what does a million dollars look like? How much does it weigh? How much space does it take up?

Well. It looks like a really well-played game of Monopoly, weighs about 25 pounds, and takes up as much space as an oversized toolbox.

As concrete as those measurements are, they aren’t made-up guestimates. I know all this thanks to an extraordinary encounter with a man named Charlie.

Charlie was a regular at the coffee shop I work at. And by regular, I mean swung by every Monday at exactly 7:01 am. He had the luxury of having nowhere else to be. Charlie was homeless.

Every Monday he would carefully park his cart laden with his few possessions, quietly approach the counter, and deposit two dollars into the tip jar before excusing himself for the restroom.

The kindness in his gesture always moved me. Maybe it’s ignorant to admit, but I would always imagine how hard it must have been for him to scrounge that two dollars. To sit and wait for someone to overcome pride and toss their spare change.

I’d imagine him going to sleep on Sunday night, finding comfort that he knew exactly where his next meal was coming from.

About a month into our regular Monday routine, Charlie started bringing me “gifts.” The first was a makeup bag that had supposedly fallen off a woman’s car as she rushed to work. Next was a backpack of shampoo bottles. The best was a tiny lunch pail filled with men’s deodorant and a Nair hair removal kit.

Because I am both unassuming and like to avoid awkward situations, I took these gifts.

“Wow, thank you, Charlie! That’s so kind of you!”

Really, what could come from accepting a dozen half-used bottles of shampoo?

The last Monday I ever saw Charlie, he brought me an extra special gift. I was getting ready to decline more personal hygiene products when he hoisted a blue toolbox onto the counter. It looked pretty standard for a toolbox, maybe more industrial and a bit bigger.

He asked me, “So what do you think is in here?”

I said, “Probably soap.”

He told me to pick it up. I did. He told me to open it. I did.

Then things took a turn for the bizarre.  

Inside Charlie’s blue toolbox were stacks upon stacks of hundred-dollar bills. Bursting to the brim. I slammed the lid down with a sharp, metallic bang.

I stared at him, blood rushing to my ears, finding it absolutely impossible to formulate a cohesive sentence. His eyes were dancing, like he expected me to be excited or proud of him.

He told me that that little blue box held half a million dollars. He had two more outside as well, in case I wanted to know. In other words, this homeless man who I served three muffins and a large white chocolate mocha to every Monday was technically a millionaire. Okay.

To make a long (really long) story short, Charlie proceeded to: offer to pay my tuition, buy me a house, and invest in any future business plans I may have if I also agreed to be his pretend caretaker.

As tempting as a free education sounded, I clearly said no. The whole caretaker thing was a definite deal breaker. I still have absolutely no idea what he actually meant by that.

Charlie said he got his money from a government stipend and a disability check from being wounded in the Vietnam War. After angry Gaby came out, he eventually disclosed that he really makes most of his money from selling “good product” late at night. Must be some quality product.

I put on a show for Charlie, asserting myself and eventually getting him to leave. But as soon as he left I went to the back, sunk to the ground, and cried. I wanted to vomit. My shirt was stuck to my back from sweat.

I felt used and vulnerable. I almost felt taken advantage of, and I still can’t figure out why. Charlie didn’t physically hurt me, but my physical responses were the same as if he had.

I switched my shifts so that I would, hopefully, never have to see Charlie again. I told my coworkers that a homeless man had been acting weird towards me and I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. As if “weird” could accurately describe the saga.

Maybe I should have told someone this story earlier. Maybe I should have tried to get Charlie help. He clearly depicts symptoms of severe PTSD. But I just couldn’t.

For some reason this experience is like a wound for me. I’ve told the people closest to me, but how are you supposed to convey the raw confusion and emotion that comes from seeing something so blatantly out of the ordinary? No one can identify with this. It’s nearly impossible to relate.  

Although I’d like to end the re-telling of this story on a “live and learn” note, I can’t do that because I don’t think I’m fully over the absurdity of what took place.

I didn’t mean for this piece to have such a drastic and somber note (I actually wanted to make it funny), but then I realized that would be cheating on the things I actually felt when it happened.

So yes, a homeless man showed told me he had 1.5 million dollars in his possession. Which is utter blasphemy, but it makes for one heck of a story.