Wind swept up the refuse of civilization, mostly the exoskeletons of items of consumption, discarded once their soft bodies were slurped out, or remnants of the lost art of inked press: outdated headlines, crossword puzzles, comics, weighty editorials, the oil slick of advertisement, the tepid reviews of final exits. It led them in a dance with light poles; they swung around, glided and leaped through traffic; became penned under the wheels of progress; resurrected, they continued their flights of fancy from the oppression of the past. People were going, some this way, some the opposite way, all a great milling of isolation, predeterminism and chance; faces set upon the business at hand, the appointed hours, the wondrous sights to see; meeting, catching, climbing, clawing up; avoiding the down-and-out and eye contact whenever possible, the tell of a native. They loathed being misidentified as tourists, those wide-eyed gawkers of celebrity; although when the fashionably chic were sometimes mistaken for celebrity by the outsiders, a more benevolent, compassionate opinion was conferred upon them: They became the rustic seers, purveyors of genius, prophets sent by Providence to find and declare the legitimate heirs to thrones. Even so to be accosted by the tacky lepers created an immediate revulsion and stifled cries, “Unclean! Unclean! I’ve been touched by the unclean!”
I ducked out of the way of the teeming masses of self-importance into a cafe, carrying an acquired fern destined to become a shadowy, stick figure version of its former glorious self and receive an unceremonious end in a garbage can. I took a seat across from an elderly man with the sun-spotted complexion of the outdoors type. Before my order of coffee arrived, he had formulated a way to intrude on my much sought out solitude.
“You like plants?”
“I work for a funeral home, ” I falsely confessed. A reminder of his numbered days, however, did not deter him from squandering time in talking with a stranger. I don’t understand how people are never put off by my obvious attempts to put them off. And I am a failure at small talk, but people seem to home in on me as if I were a naturally good listener, which I am not. What is it about such social exchanges that we engage in? Could it be that small talk is the form of communication that really grounds us in our humanity over the countless whispered intimacies; of plans for futures already spent, of hope and love; of commonplace things; of denials and lies, shouts of rage and anguish? Simple-stripped-for-speed words ping off the walls of public confessionals; personally signed pieces of life are as graffiti tags that crave attention from donors of anonymity. The one seated next to you thrusts upon you the story of his or her life in a few broad strokes, yet somehow we come away qualified to write their epitaphs, minus some of the tedious details. (It doesn’t matter; the dates and times of personal history are as mind numbing as those found in general history, maybe even more so.)
“I used to be a farmer,” he began, “but my wife was born and raised in the city; for thirty years she made the home while I worked the dirt. The kids grown up and gone, we decided to sell out and move here. We couldn’t be happier. You see this?” He took out his wallet and tapped it with his finger. “As long as I got a dollar in here, I will never go back to farming.” By the time my coffee came, I’d learned that his dog was a lazy mutt that was primarily occupied with gnawing away the furniture, but was difficult to restrain at the sight of the pigeons in the park; he had four children who had likewise hated the farm and had scattered around the country like dandelion seeds as soon as they were emancipated; that today was his day off from a hardware store a couple of blocks down, but that he liked to go in anyway just to keep an eye on things.
I gingerly sipped the hot coffee and said, “How provincial-quite proverbial.”
Alex, the dead friend of my father’s, appeared and pulled up a chair. “Proverbial? Why don’t you take that poker out you got shoved up your arse?” In life, Alex was the embodiment of the term free spirit which to some may hold charm, but a disembodied free spirit is a curse upon the living.
“Is that one of your colorful bohemian expressions?” I asked. He got up and walked over to the farmer-turned-hardware-hawker who was ironing out the edge of the table with one of his plow hands. Alex leaned in and whispered in his ear. The old man chuckled and they both looked over at me.
“I mean proverbial in the sense that one can take the man out of the country, but he’ll just sneak back across the border. No, no, of course that’s not what I mean-I have no idea where that came from-what I’m trying to say is that the farmer who falls off the back of the truck, will land in a turnip bed.” The dreaded Alex effect took me by the throat.
I pulled out a playbill from my pocket and said loudly, “I need to practice my lines.” No one noticed. People were engrossed in their own conversations, in love with their own words, impatiently listening to others, jumping in with opinions and insufferable advice at the first sign of pause.
“How are things going with the Beat generation in the eternal here and now, Alex?” I pretended to read from the playbill. “Do the angels swing enough for you with all that hark the herald jazz? I envision your buddy Kerouac forever passed out on wine at a celestial banquet. Oh, and tell me-has Jerry Garcia been reunited with his lost liver?”
“Jerry Garcia? Never heard of him or his liver. He must be after my time.” Alex slapped the old guy on the back which made him jump out of his seat and whoop in a paler shade of James Brown, “I feel good!” And everyone in the cafe, except for myself, chorused, Na-na-na-na-na-na-na. I looked about and saw the extemporaneous fallout of sparkles in their eyes and sprinkles of angel dust caught in the light of their auras. My extraordinary powers of perception that I had spent my entire life in vain attempts to suppress, made me wince and a bit sick at the stomach.
I paid the check, grabbed up the fern and went out into the cold wind. A newspaper blew out of nowhere and began to hump my leg. I kicked it off and moved down the street, the crowds departed for me. I looked over my shoulder and saw Alex standing outside the cafe, bumming a cigarette from a street person, possibly one of his boho acquaintances, a latter-day Hank Chinaski. The mark was smiling and talking to himself. The passersby stared straight ahead at some invisible carrot on a stick, insulated from even the miraculous, oblivious to the trail of angel dust I’d tracked down the street.