I have an inadvertent adeptness for attracting the attention of fringe thinkers. When I walk down a street, people with pamphlets and alternative theologies flock to me, selling their gods and conspiracies like Chiclets. They can tell from something in my eyes that I will listen to what they have to say, and I often travel alone, making me more approachable than most flocks. And I do listen to what they have to say.
Yesterday I spoke with a homeless man who grew up in New Orleans and now is just “trying to survive” in the city. When he was younger he wasn’t concerned with his health, drinking carelessly and spending many nights with many women. “It was probably the women that did it!” he said and chuckled, holding onto his walker.
In Berkeley, a man without a shirt approached me and, knowing that I would understand his dilemma, sighed and said, “Man, I don’t have a shirt.” I realize that the normal thing to do would be to ignore him and move on, but I stopped, and advised him to get a shirt. He asked where, and I didn’t know; he was eyeing mine, so I left it at that. I also understand that Berkeley is some kind of epicenter for these sorts of people. I imagine they hold annual get-togethers.
So, my willingness to listen is easily perceived. I enjoy the conversations in a sort of arrogant way, like a physics professor enjoying a child’s explanation of why the sky is blue.
I speak of it now because a man in flannel just sat with me and, as I was reading, told me that Middle Eastern people are illiterate, on the whole, and that I will soon be drafted into a nuclear war. I won’t describe his whole outlook and strategic plans because I’ve already forgotten, and besides, it’s not like a nuclear war would require that many troops anyway, right? He also said it was “Hitler all over again.” I didn’t fully comprehend the analogy, it was just over my head, you know, but I nodded as he stepped away, and with a false sincerity that comes to me naturally, said, “Yeah, really.” Yes, brother man friend, I understand. I understand you and all of your problems. It is… Hitler, all over again. Eloquent, man.
I was caught by what a sad man he may have been, alone in his stained white undershirt and warm flannel, his bookbag holding some grocery store paperback. He flipped through a small notepad while I tried to read, and he tried to make a phone call. When no one answered, he chuckled and nodded his head. How typical of her, he thought.
He is always eager for conversation. I’ve seen him before. I suppose he works at one of the Tressider Union businesses---I can’t really tell. He doesn’t look or sound like an academic, and he is not a physical laborer. He likely sits in a small office from nine in the morning until the late evening hours tracking photocopy transactions at Kinko’s, and when he finally gets off from work, he passes through the coffee house for a brief, warm cup, and a conversation with today’s up and coming academics. “I guess I sat with the reading club,” he said to me, watching everyone with their noses between pages.
I think he lives alone or with someone he doesn’t love and who doesn’t love him. When he gets home from work he complains that there is nothing in the refrigerator. Warm food would be a godsend and he realistically doesn’t expect it. She tells him, as she watches Deal or No Deal, that it isn’t her job and she didn’t have time anyway. He inhales deeply to raise his voice, but it’s been a long day and there’s no point to yelling anymore. He grabs a silver foil package of Pop Tarts and joins her on the couch, watching Howie Mandel and thinking back on the university kids he met earlier in the day. “I don’t know how you can eat those things cold,” she says. He doesn’t respond and wishes they were strawberry instead of cinnamon. They don’t speak to each other until the next night when she tells him that there is half a cheese pizza in the fridge, and that tomorrow is trash day so he better not forget to move the cans to the curb. They agreed he would take care of the garbage as they divvyed up the domestic responsibilities early on, but neither of them ever followed the so-called ‘rules’ with any consistency. In recent years he has become obedient to most of her demands; she really doesn’t ask for much but he doesn’t realize it. He does know she is a good woman and that the woman he married is somewhere there, still. She works early hours at a hospital with no room for promotions or aspirations and has grown weary of the daily routine, and the dreadful complacency of the lower middle class. She still loves the man he once was; memories of happiness, really, as well as financial convenience, are why they are still together. He is a red-faced, balding man with desperate grey eyes and yellow teeth; she is fearing her rapid age, worrying that her best years are past, and that ‘this is all there is’. She has been wearing thicker make up everyday and tries to emulate black and white photos of 1920s flappers by using bright red lipstick. They both know they will not be better off apart.
Tomorrow will be like tying old shoelaces, unconsciously simple, and at the end he will have to look at the calendar in his small notepad to see if another day has actually passed. It is Hitler all over again.