Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Slipping His Moorings

Last week on my walk to work I finally encountered a individual I'd been avoiding and ignoring for weeks as I walked past his truck. Every morning I've seen him sitting at the wheel of a small white pickup truck, parked across from a small city park in North Berkeley. The truck has a bashed tailgate and the bed covered over by a blue plastic tarp, lashed down with that weird plastic rope. The passenger side is piled with white plastic garbage bags and green canvass haversacks stuffed with various things. I have seen him shaving in the rearview mirror, and emerging from the public toilet in the park. Sometimes he writes vigorously on a clipboard. In other words, it looks like he's living out of a pickup truck with no shell.

This particular day, he happened to get out of his pickup just as I walked by across the street and glanced over. He looked right at me and rather than just brazen my way past without betraying any recognition, I was compelled by some weird impulse (guilt, probably) to greet him by name, walk across and offer my hand. I later temporarily regretted that move, but I assume that people will recognize me just when I don't want them to. I seem to recognize nearly everyone I've ever met in my life, so I assume others do too. Not that I'm necessarily recognizeable, but I just figure people remember faces. Anyway, I felt like I couldn't decently just blow by and not say hello, and I confess to being curious. His fate has been a mystery to some of us over the years, and certain of my mates have been urging me to talk to him and get some gouge.

He looked at me for a minute, clearly not recognizing me right away, but then said, "Hey, I know you!" For a moment, everything was quite normal, though it quickly became clear he hasn't been doing well lately, at least on the economic front. His voice was much deeper, but he basically hadn't changed his appearance from late teenage years. His face was more lined, and he wore wire rimmed glasses instead of the Buddy Holly specs he used to have. Otherwise, he was exactly the same as when I last spoke to him, probably 25 years ago. He even dresses exactly the same: jeans, white t-shirt, tennis shoes, and a blue jacket over all. He looked clean, and he didn't smell bad (which was an improvement over his teenage years). He was clean shaven.

We exchanged the usual "How ya' been" pleasantries, and I betrayed little of my circumstances, seeing as how 25 odd years is a lot to cover in a few moments on the way to work. Then I asked, "How 'bout you? What're you up to?" This opened a deep, dark can of worms, as I should've known it would. He didn't really know where to start. He kind of waved a hand at the truck and said "Wellll, politics, bad's been tough."

"Oh?" I said, immediately thinking I should've just said, "Well, endure, and live for a better day!" and headed down the road. However, curiosity got the better of me and stayed to listen to a long, monotonic dissertation on his brother and family, the machinations of his mother's conservators, one of who has a mind smaller in scope than his, and how the bastards just don't understand deep down how valuable a guy like him can be. Each thing led to another tangent, and his tale grew more branches than the surrounding redwoods. At some point I had to start detaching. I launched a few verbal cues for ending the conversation, but they weren't picked up. He was rolling and he had much to say. I think maybe it had been a while since anyone had asked how he was doing. I remember mentally shaking my head, thinking that he's had it, he's drifting and can't find the pier. At his age, no one will hire him for much of anything that pays a living wage, and I got the impression that his claims of computer expertise were possibly unsupportable, but that's hard to say. On the other hand, he was always kind of a personally grandiose individual, perhaps in reaction to the knowledge that he was ridiculed widely, even by some of us who purported to be his friends.

I felt real sympathy for him, but also a revival of the grinding irritation that he used to engender when the gang used to hang out. His innate pomposity has survived the years, but it's joined by a pathetic, apologetic self realization that he annoys people. Deep down, he's a nice guy, and always was. He used to compliment us in a genuine, unaffected manner, mostly just because you should compliment your friends. He was doing his best in the face of some serious social handicaps, and couldn't bust out of his retro-conservative mode. I remember him becoming enraged and stomping out of the house when he saw the Beach Boys on a TV show, and they all had beards and long hair. Incidents like that kept us shaking our heads. We all wondered what had become of him. I used to see him at a distance once ever five years or so. There were rumors that he was keeping bees for some old guy who was keeping him. That came from his brother. We chuckled cruelly over that, but who really knew the truth? We were wrong to be that way, and we probably all knew it, and hopefully we've grown a bit since then.

Eventually, I had to say goodbye and get to work. I interrupted a long description of how city governments work with a overly obvious glance at my watch and said "Look, I really gotta be running along. Good to see you, and I'll probably run into you again sometime." He began to apologize and I just held up my hands and shook my head and said, "Not to worry. No problem. Hang in there. OK." I turned on my heel and strolled south. He headed back to his truck cab.

I will undoubtedly see him and talk again. Not for any great length. However, now I'm interested to see which way he'll go. Will he hang in there, will he endure and live for a better day? Will there be a better day for him to live for? I hope so. He deserves it as much as we all do.


Blogger Don said...

That is a very nice, long and interesting dissertation on the current state of affairs for the man. I actually want to learn more. It may be that I will seek him out myself. Why the hell not? Life can be cruel, and as one of the more fortunate recipients of life's capricious fortune, the least I could do is give him someone to talk to, buy him lunch and learn just how fortunate I have been.

On the other hand, just in case he's just as naturally annoying as he ever was, I'll keep my watch conspicuously handy.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Don said...

a long, monotonic dissertation on his brother and family, the machinations of his mother's conservators, one of who has a mind smaller in scope than his, and how the bastards just don't understand deep down how valuable a guy like him can be.

His lawyer brother probably froze his shiftless ass out. Maybe some weird residual old-world comeuppance for immoral behavior. All the same I'd like to hear about it. Same place every day, huh? The ol' town is a tolerant place.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Yep, same place everyday. Of course, I've avoided it since I spoke with him, but if I don't ride in tomorrow, I may stroll by and say hi. Shall I mention you?

4:58 PM  

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