The Characters In My Travels
They also have generally had to confront circumstances which erode the capacity to lie to oneself. In consequence, even the slowest among them often has more street smarts than the brightest who work in offices, computer cubicles, or classrooms. None of them talk the absolute self-centered nonsense of the ambitious and the well-fed, and what they have to say when they speak is always of interest even when it is mistaken.
The mentally ill, the poor, and the disabled also have real faces and real personalities rather than the desperate visages and personae most Americans try to create in the image of their favorite television show host or newscaster. No intellectual or moral botox exists which they can afford to use to cover up who they are or why they got that way.
Consider "Big Dave" (not his real name, of course) the ex-biker from the Bronx who pulled himself up from drug abuse and a crippling anxiety disorder which first confined him to his room in utter terror and later had him sleeping in churchyards so the police couldn't legally move him on without complaint from the churches themselves.
Six-one and 345 pounds Dave is, despite constantly bicycling all over town (he is a vision perched on a spidery cycle) and working out regularly in a local gym. He used his NYC chops, which he retained intact, to land a gofer position with my mental health job placement agency DIVA (no, the letters are not quite those).
He is really a big sweet teddy bear in his grey locker room t-shirt and graying fu-manchu mustache, ever ready to tell you that he is a "reformed thug" (he has the sharp and constantly moving eyes of one) and to sing the praises of his kindly professors (he got support to get a BA in recovery) as he shows you how to re-do your resume on the DIVA computers. Father was a German-American doorman, taking bribes from the wiseguys for little "services", and Grandfather was a Hitler Brownshirt, so, as he says, he came by his thugdom honestly, despite doing well in the private high school the bribes paid for.
Now he worries how to keep his African-American girlfriend's teenage son working, and on track, rather than on the street, and how to keep focused enough to hold the anxiety disorder at bay when the world is not so nice to him, as it is occasionally not so nice to us all.
Then there is the "Reverend". I don't know his real name, but he stands at the bus stop across from a prominent State government building. He is my height (medium-short) or just a little shorter, a little more rotund than I am, African-American with a fine grey head and grizzled beard, and "ministers" to a small congregation of fellow pensioners in the group home where he lives.
He will hand you a Xerox announcing the services of his "church" and asking you for a donation to help, and will pray over you if you are troubled. He also has a fine singing voice and is frequently in the mood to serenade all on the sidewalk with good old gospel praises of his Lord. Sometimes, when the mood strikes him, he wears a clerical collar and black shirt, but mostly he dresses in his suits of thirty years ago under a broad brimmed fedora if the weather permits.
He is a happy man, sure of his Salvation from God's love, and generally liked by everybody from the State Highway Patrolmen and badged bag-peekers doing terrorist building security, to the bemused bureaucrats copping a smoke outside the revolving doors. I give him a wave of my cane and greet him by his title whenever I see him, and he just beams.
I wish the next man were happier. He deserves it. He is a very ordinary fellow in his early forties with straight black hair and very pale, almost translucent, skin whom you would never notice on a bus except for one thing--his right hand is tiny, functionless, and eight inches from the point of his shoulder. He's the right age for a thalidomide baby, and I suspect he was one.
He has the right, by federal law, to sit in the first seats on the bus, and he will if they are empty. But if full of healthy people, he will swiftly walk by without looking and park himself in the regular seats. He never meets anyone's eyes and you can see in your mind's eye a shimmering carapace all around him from years of being stared at rudely, or not looked at equally rudely and trying to maintain his dignity in consequence. And you can see in your mind's eye that the shell which surrounds him was excreted like an oyster's pearl--in response to chronic emotional discomfort and pain.
Then, of course, there is old Joe Claus, who is as much of a character as any of these others. He gets smiles from many this time of year for reminding them of Big Brother Santa.
And when you see him with his antique cane, the handle wrapped in leather shoelaces, his battered RealTree Camo boonie hat with the Howard Dean button and the blue-jay feather on one side and the Amnesty International button on the other, the off-striped rugby shirt, and the green polartec fleece vest, you might see why Maggie, the receptionist at DIVA, always thinks of him as "my little Leprechaun" (though the small ceramic pot, filled with gold-wrapped chocolates, that I gave her for her birthday might have contributed to it).
When you watch him, on the bus or in front of Starbuck's, quietly reciting Buddhist mantras while telling a mala of bodhi beads with the silver counters on the purple yarn dangling, you might wonder as much about his story as you do about the other eccentric characters who have caught his eye.
The quiet and self-effacing Muslims, like Ali the jolly little African janitor of the building where Starbuck's lives, in the interior court, across from the bank branch, always introduce themselves, ask about his dikhr (the Muslim prayer you count with beads), and always have a friendly wave for Joe when they see him again.
And, of course, there are the smartly dressed lawyers; lawyerettes; brokers; brokerettes; bank loan officers; security guards manning the black marble and polished steel console, with Fox News on the plasma monitors; and the middle-aged secretaries headed out the door with their Virginia burley cigarettes, Bic lighters, and bulletproof faces, passing by as Joe drinks his latte. All of them, without exception, do their very best to pretend that Joe Claus really isn't there.