Gary had been on his last nickel for a long time, ever since the war. He carried his few belongings in a grimy duffel bag. His shoes were held together with duct tape. He sat on a sheet of cardboard, cup in hand, only half awake.
He heard the plink of a coin, looked up, and said “bless you, sir.”
“You’re welcome, bud. Can I offer you a bite to eat?”
“Can’t turn that down, sir. But I don’t do sex or nothin'”
“I want only two things, bud. First, you get a shower, and second, conversation.”
Gary was a bit confused. “Shower? What are you talking about?”
“Bud, my name’s Jason. I’m a vagrant myself. You’re new, let me show you around.”
Jason steered Gary toward an auto-lavatory. It was clean, single-occupancy.
“I told you, no sex.”
“Gary, I’m going to step outside. Then, I want you to step into that shower, and push that button – the one that looks like a shower spray. And the one that looks like you’re putting laundry into a washer. Capiche?”
Gary nodded. Feeling foolish, he followed instructions. He saw an icon which looked like a barber at work, and pushed that too. A sort of foam arose, enveloping him, insinuating itself into his clothes, washing away grime. A kind of bushy fog engulfed his beard and hair. He learned later that it was something called a “bush robot” – each branch bifurcated, until the ends were tiny scissors, equipped with sensors, which did a fine job of trimming hair and beard.
When he stepped outside, Gary felt like a new man.
“Were you going for the buzz cut?” asked Jason.
“I didn’t know I had a choice,” replied Gary.
“You can speak to the SonicShower, and ask for a different look.”
The two sat down at an eatery, and ordered burgers, fries, and beer.
“Why are you so nice to me,” asked Gary.
“Karma. Somebody did the same for me. Every city is different, and it helps if somebody shows you around. First off, the showers are free at the Airport Mall. Why? It improves the atmosphere. It’s easier to give you a free shower and clean clothes and a hair cut, than to run you off.”
After they had finished, Gary was sleepy; he hadn’t had a meal in some while.
“Let me show you where to sleep,” said Jason. He flagged down an auto-cart, which looked much like a golf cart. “Take us to the Free Hostel, please.” The cart replied “Free Hostel” and accelerated. It went through an unmarked door, and down a long hallway, and stopped.
Jason spoke to a holo-teller. “A room for my friend Gary, please.”
Jason accepted a key, and tossed a dime into the donation slot. “You can get in free if you want, but most people pitch in a bit.”
Gary pitched in another dime. The two found Gary’s capsule. It was the lower of two enclosed beds, modeled after the kapuseru hoteru of Japan. There was room to sleep, to sit. A light permitted reading. A shelf held Gary’s bag. A door secured the contents.
“Auto-lavatories are down the hall. Take your key with you. The capsules let for 24 hours; your key will flash when it’s time to renew or vacate. If you forget, your bag will be stored for a week. You can ask for a longer lease, up to a week.”
“Who pays for this?”
“Former vagrants, mostly.”
The next morning, Gary found his way to the lobby of the hostel. He nibbled at a danish, and sipped coffee. He asked a neighbor where to find booze.
“Place on the main level sells the cheap stuff. The Booze Shop. Right next to a MediClinix.”
“How do I get there?”
“Just down the hall, see the yellow stanchions? Wait there, an autocart will come around.”
Gary waited, flagged an AutoCab, asked for the Booze Shop. He had enough for a pint of rotgut.
He winced when he swallowed. His gut was bothering him.
“Heartburn, mate? The MediClinix will check you.”
Gary shuffled next door. The HoloNurse asked him to wait a moment, then showed him to a cubicle.
“Please remove your clothes and be seated.”
Gary did so. He would have panicked when the foam enveloped him, but it reminded him of the SonicShower, and a mild sedative caused him to relax. He felt twinges and tickles and pricks as blood was drawn, and heard odd noises.
The HoloNurse reappeared. Gary covered himself.
“You have an ulcer. A course of antibiotics will be injected. Your liver requires more extensive work; we can rejuvenate it for you. I can refer you to a specialist for the back injuries and arthritis.”
“What will this cost?”
“Our investigation shows that you have no financial resources. Your tab will be picked up by the charity of your choice.”
Gary looked at a list – several veterans organizations, of different nationality; several churches; the Socity of Vagrants of Wallenberg; other groups called Friends of so-and-so and Jolly Good Blokes and Atheists For Love.
“You will usually be contacted by the charity of your choice. You have no obligation.”
“What do people usually pick?”
“People usually pick somebody whose company they can stand. Some Veterans like to connect with other veterans; some do not. Some like to listen to preaching.”
“And what would I expect from Society of Vagrants?”
“An ear, and a bit of advice about how to get around. You have already been in contact with a member.”
Gary chose the Vagrants.
A day later, he was feeling much better. He stopped in at a local Veterans Hall. The conversation wasn’t to his taste; he wandered a bit, and found a pleasant garden, where people wandered, conversed, and smoked pleasant herbs.
A week later, Gary spied Jason, sitting alone at a table. “May I join you?” asked Gary.
“But of course! Will you have a bite? How are you?”
“Better. I’ve got a place to sleep, I’m getting enough to pay for meals, and my liver and gut are in much better shape. I’m starting to wonder, actually, if there’s any kind of work I’d be fit for.”
“What did you do before?” asked Jason.
“Well, I was in combat, and I’m not wanting to do that again. I was a corpsman, and that’s OK, but I think you’ve got HoloNurses and AutoDocs doing most of that now. Mostly I just bum around, be nice to people, and hope they’ll put a few coins in my cup.”
“I have two ideas. One, you hear about how we organize our ‘first response’ teams?”
“We call it Skill Sharing. You advertise a skill – such as corpsman – and you get a bit just for being available at a certain time and place; you get more when you actually use your skill.”
“Kind of like ride sharing.”
“But I’m rusty.”
“That’s no matter. Part of the deal is, you get an Interface.” Jason tapped his temple. “and up-to-date training. And if you’re in a crisis, an expert can talk you through it.”
“OK, what’s the second idea?”
“I’ve watched you. You’re actually a good conversationalist. You make people feel good.”
“Brings in the coins,” replied Gary.
“Let me show you to the Kinder Garten.”
The Kinder Garten wasn’t what Gary had expected. It was a large park/mall area, filled with people, mostly pre-teen.
“These young folks don’t yet have their own Interfaces. They like to hang out here. They mostly look out for themselves, but sometimes things get a bit too much. Say somebody falls out of a tree. There are autodocs here – see that gazebo? – but it helps to have an adult with some experience and maturity.”
“And what would I do, when there isn’t a crisis?”
“Converse with anybody who is interested. They’ll seek you out.”
“I get paid for that?”
“You get paid for making the place a bit safer and friendlier and more attractive. Do you like to read?”
“Used to. Need new glasses.”
“Get your eyes fixed, and park yourself there, by the library.”
Geezer Gary, as he was known, became a regular. He told stories of primitive times when people had to drive their own cars and dial their own cellphones. He read stories; he helped younger kids learn to piece together words; he helped expand the vocabulary of those who wanted to better understand the speech patterns and slang of retired veterans.