It was a cold night, very windy, with driving, heavy rain. I was alone in the laundromat, a block from my apartment. I had been there perhaps forty minutes, reading a newspaper, while I stood by one of the washing machines. A young man entered, stopped opposite me, and looked at me.
Twenty years old. Moderately long black hair, fine, boyish good looks framed by his hair and an incomplete beard and moustache which were perhaps ten days old. There was a bright, faraway look in his eyes. He was very wet, shivering with cold, wearing only a shirt, a pair of jeans, and black boots. He smiled innocently, to reveal very white teeth. Babylon, I'm going to Babylon, he said.
He pointed at my green athletic sweatshirt, which I was wearing under my heavy coat. Can I have your sweater? I really need a sweater. No, I replied, I need it myself. That statement was true as far as it went, but in fact I had an identical, although newer one, at home. I could have given him my sweatshirt, and would still have had one to wear. But I didn't.
What is your name? Michael, he said. Where are you from? He named a town to the south, a town noted for the wealth of its residents. And he did look healthy and well cared for, apart from being ill-dressed for a cold, wet night.
Michael stood up very straight, and saluted me, and held the salute precisely for several seconds, while he looked at me with determination. Sir, he said. Yes, sir. He spoke for a while, not very coherently, about his dad in the military. Where does your dad live? Michael named his town again, and dropped his salute. The faraway look returned to his eyes.
My friend told me that I can get to Babylon by a bridge over the ocean. I want to go to Babylon. My friend says that it's a beautiful city. I am going to the ocean to cross the bridge to Babylon. Can I have some socks? I really need some socks. I looked at my laundry, which consisted only of underwear, tumbling in a dryer. I wondered whether I had included any white socks in the load. But I hadn't.
I can give you a tee shirt. Would you like a tee shirt? Yes, he replied. I went to the dryer to extract a shirt. I'm a lot bigger than you are, so the shirt is extra large. That's okay, Michael said, smiling. He stood opposite another dryer, and removed his own sopping shirt. I was surprised at how muscular he was, especially around the shoulders and upper arms, like a weight lifter. He was slim but not starving. He spent a minute or two admiring his reflection in the glass door of a dryer, absorbed in the experience.
Here is your shirt, I said. Here is your shirt. Eventually Michael noticed the tee shirt I was holding out to him. Sorry, he said, I did not hear a word you said. My friend says that Babylon is a beautiful city. Is that true?
I hear that Babylon is a ruined city, in a desert, I replied. Really? said Michael. Really?
He put on the tee shirt, and then his own wet shirt. I am warm now, he said. That happy, open, innocent look returned to his face. I have to go now, he said. Goodbye. And he walked out into the rain and wind.