Thursday, August 27, 2009

The people that you meet each day (a cast of characters)

Everybody has people in their life that they know by sight but not in any meaningful personal way, or with whom their interactions are relatively restricted. These are the people in your neighborhood, in the sense of the old children's song. After a while you acknowledge them, because not doing so, when you clearly know each other to say hello, seems inhuman (of course there are exceptions, people who make it clear they don't want to be greeted). And yet you know little or nothing about them, and there isn't any particular impulse on either side to move beyond hail-and-farewell. To a certain kind of mindset (mine), these people invite idle fictionalization. So here they are, in no particular order, names changed to protect the innocent, or because I have no idea what their names are anyway.

Grim UPS guy

Delivering for UPS is probably a pretty thankless job in my neighborhood, which is mountainous with lots of narrow and absurdly winding streets. It also rains practically every day. The UPS guy is a serious, weathered, lean, and quiet character, of indeterminate European ancestry, with hair of a subdued color, streaked with gray, and a small, neat mustache. He keeps his head down and gives off an air of trying to get through a minor but distasteful task with dignity. I'm sure there's a perfectly innocent explanation, like the job is boring, or he has other things on his mind, or that's just his natural neutral expression; but the fiction writer in me jumps straight to the thought that his mind is on his oppressed brethren in Ruritania, and that he just has to get through another year or two of this work in exile before he can return to claim the throne and restore the monarchy.

Ti leaf-bicycle guy

Cheery, skinny, spiky-haired, Asian, age unclear; dressed in T-shirt, running shorts, and slippers, with his face nearly hidden behind oversized '80s-style round plastic-rimmed glasses. He pushes a bicycle (I've never seen him ride it and the tires look dubious) with a hand-lettered sign on cardboard, reading "GOD BLESS." In one or both hands, or affixed to the bicycle somewhere, he always has a couple of bunches of ti leaves. Might be homeless, but reasonably well-groomed in a Richard Simmons 1970s kind of way, so my money is on "extremely eccentric" instead. I can't decide, for narrative purposes, whether he is a slightly wacky evangelical Christian or just a guy who wants to wish everyone well in a slightly religious way. Either way, he is always moving, always going somewhere. He seems like one of those people who have a deeply seated purpose in life, but one that maybe not everybody else can understand, like he's carrying out some duty known only to himself.

Tuxedo man

Frequenter of the university libraries, possibly homeless; a tall, thoughtful-looking man in middle age, with a scruffy, but trimmed, beard, always seen wearing cowboy boots and a tuxedo with pleated-front tuxedo shirt. No bow tie. Possessions in a collection of plastic bags; inevitably absorbed in a book. One occasionally sees him in the grocery store as well, buying food. Not knowing his story, I imagine him as a down-on-his-luck concert pianist or accompanist, always ready for the next concert.

Cheery checkout lady

Likes to speak Chinese with me when I come through the grocery store checkout line, after that one time I came through wearing the Threadless "Communist Party" T-shirt (Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and Mao, yukking it up with plastic cups of beer, took a certain amount of explanation). Unshakably positive attitude, possibly a single mother. I could probably get her whole life story if she weren't on the clock every time I see her. If I ever see her outside of the Safeway, maybe I will ask her.

Okinawan Roy

85-year-old Army veteran, served in occupied Japan (but don't call him AJA), lives somewhere around the neighborhood and hangs out near the sidewalk tables of the sandwich shop. Full of stories about the neighborhood fifty years ago. Finally explained why there's a graveyard in the front yard of the neighborhood theatre. Another one I'd like to get to know better, and another story I might actually learn one day.


Melinda Hsu Taylor said...

So why is there a graveyard in front of the neighborhood theatre? Really enjoyed your observations of the locals. Especially the haiku t-shirt. My boss Damon, at the Saturn Awards for science fiction, composed a haiku ostensibly written by Lobot (the guy in Empire Strikes Back who is Lando Calrissian's sidekick in Cloud City -- has headphones for ears, says nothing) -- Damon had dared himself to read the haiku in lieu of an acceptance speech, but chickened out at the last minute. Now the only part of the haiku he remembers is the closing line: "Why, Lando? Why? Why?"

SEB said...

The graveyard was formerly the churchyard of a now-disappeared church, which was a branch of a much more famous church that still stands downtown. More via e-mail.