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02 August 2008

Speak to me only w-i-i-th thine eyes.......

I spotted Joe in a mid-city eatery the other day. I hadn’t seen him in many moons, and he was all duded up, as usual, and staring into the distance, also as usual. Finally recognizing me, he lit up like a juke-box.

“Still watching people, Joe?” I said, sliding into the booth where he was nursing a coffee.

“Yep. And sometimes I think I’m the only guy in St. Augustine — the whole world — who does.”

“How come?”

“Well,” he said, his expression settling into seriousness, “that may be an overstatement, but I do think most of the world’s problems come from people’s unwillingness, to look at each other, listen to each other, find out what the other person’s all about.”

“I suppose so,” I said, sensing I’d come upon Joe in one of his brooding-Irishman moods.

“It’s absolutely fantastic what you see when you really look at people,” Joe said.

“Like what?”

“There’s the universal need for reassurance, for one thing.” He smiled dimly. “Take secretaries and display windows. A secretary only rarely stops at a display window to see what’s being displayed. She most often stops to use the glass as a mirror. An octopus could be wrestling a rhino in that window and she’d never notice it because she’s looking for something much more important: a mirrored confirmation that she’s alive and well and properly dressed in a flabbergasting world.”

“What else do you see?”

“There’s the tyranny of things,” Joe said. “Like, on workdays I park my car in one of those municipal lots. And some guy who also parks there is being tyrannized by a thing.”

“How so?”

“Well, you’ve got to visualize him, sort of. He’s right out of Central Casting. He personifies the rising young executive — an assistant bank manager, say, who’s parlayed his savvy and training into a spot in the front office. His badge of success is a shiny new Mercedes-Benz, which he parks as if it’s one of the crown jewels. It’s obviously the biggest thing that’s ever happened to him, owning that ritzy car.

“He comes in early to be sure he gets a good spot. Once he’s got the car positioned precisely right, he climbs out, rubs it down with a cloth, breathes on this spot and that, rubs again, then stands off a bit to admire it all.

“He walks around the thing, gazing at it from one angle, then another. He leaves only after he’s absolutely certain all’s well. And I know for a fact he visits the car at noon, just to be sure it’s OK.

“Out of sheer devilment, I waited for him one morning, and when he got his beautiful car parked just right, I pulled my clunk next to him, real close. I didn’t do anything to his baby — bang it with a door or anything — but he was so upset at my closeness he climbed back in, started the motor and drove all around the lot looking for a parking place that seemed secure from clods like me. I’m sure he was late for work that day.”

“It must be awful, living in fear of a fender scratch.”

“I’ll say,” Joe sighed. “We tend to get so preoccupied with things we don’t have time for our lives, our spirits. How can you laugh, enjoy, grow, create, when you’re fretting about the paint on your Mercedes, eh? For that matter, how can you enjoy your Mercedes?”

We thought about that, then Joe said, “I walk around town a lot, noontime. And once in a while there’ll be one of those sidewalk religionists speaking to the crowds about eternity and the end-times or whatever, and it’s really something to see, the way people scramble to avoid him. He could be hawking dirty pictures and nobody’d think a thing of it, but by speaking of heaven he becomes a threat.”

I agreed. “I knew a guy who could always get a place at the bar in the most crowded saloon in town. Someone asked him how he managed it, and he said he’d simply inch up to a cluster of people gabbing and guzzling at the spot he wanted and announce to them in a quiet voice: ‘God loves you and wants you to repent.’ That’s all he’d say, and they’d break their necks trying to get away from him.”

Joe nodded, appreciating the irony. “But back to my main point: As people, we don’t have enough time for each other. We don’t take the time to look into the other guy’s eyes and hear what he’s saying to us. Like the noontime I was sitting on a bench in the Plaza. A guy comes sauntering by, real dignified and sharp in expensive clothes. We traded nods, and he said, ‘Nice park you have here.’

“I had several options. I could’ve dismissed the guy as a weirdo and said nothing. Or I could’ve mumbled something and pretended interest in my newspaper. Or I could do what I did, which was to agree it was a very nice park indeed.

“He was obviously from out of town, because he spoke of the park as if seeing it for the first time. And he had a sense of values, an appreciation of a pretty place. And so I saw what he was really saying to me was, ‘I’m a stranger in town, and I’m lonely, and I wonder if you’d share a moment or two.’ We had a good chat, and I felt better the rest of the day for having met and traded ideas with a fine human being.”

I thought about cities and the smooth talkers and sharp dressers who’d kill you for your bus tokens, and Joe must have read my mind.

“It’s got to start someplace,” he said. “We’ve got to stop being threatened by things and places and ideas. We’ve got to stop shutting out the minds and hearts that reach out to us. The world won’t get any better until we do.”

We drifted outside and promised to keep in touch. After the goodbyes, I headed for my house.

At the corner of St. George and Hypolita, a tall man with a bleary face, hair that went from here to there, and a tattered jump suit registering at least 100 proof on the aroma scale, shoved a wicker basket at me and said, “Help the jobless.”

I dropped some loose change in the basket and tried to look into his eyes.

Joe would have been disappointed in the man. He never once glanced at me. He never said another word. He merely put the change in his pocket and, yawning, moved on.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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