There is a man at Starbucks, tall and well built, with a dark wealth of hair cropped about two inches from the scalp, covered in a dusting of silvery gray. His sullen mouth is hidden by a bushy goatee, more silver here than atop his head as if some effort aged those dark strands faster than their higher altitude neighbors. I wonder how often those lips, hidden in their bushy shelter, have been alight with a smile. I have not ever seen delight grace those lips; not even the barest hint of amusement has danced upon them during all the years I have watched him, quietly sipping my coffee, and wondering, always wondering.
Many things about this man hold him captive in my imagination, beyond the fact that he is always present when I come here to find solitude in caffeine. Solitude from my racing brain. It is as if he times his visit with my need to find a sunny corner, tucked away with Proust and my notebook, watching the faces pass by and wondering, always wondering. Or perhaps he lives here, sleeping on the couch when all the baristas have left, helping himself to a cheese Danish when a midnight hunger nips in his stomach.
When I first laid eyes on him, I knew he was different, that something was not quite right. At first, my mind said transient, and I recoiled, returning my eyes to the long lines of Swann’s Way. My experiences with many of the local homeless left me empathetic toward them, but unsympathetic. I knew that many were ill, be it physically, mentally or emotionally; that many had demons or deep scars which made it difficult to face reality. I know what it means to suffer, to hurt so bad that it feels as if those burdens will crush you with a brutal and merciless force and to wish, simultaneously, to be crushed, smashed into smithereens, into a little pancake of nothingness, and yet to wish to be rescued from the tortuous weight before it destroys you; to desire to be both shattered and saved at the same moment. Needs and cravings have racked my brain and body, so relentless that they scratched their way deep inside where I will never be free of them. They are lodged beside my soul, where they tug at it, greedily demanding sacred parts of me, and threatening to tear those bits away. I know that these men and women need help, but I also know that the majority have refused this help. They choose their path just as I have decided mine. Step by step, they have released their humanity and turned from it, while I clung to mine, dragging it back to me, even though it meant facing the darkness inside of me and acknowledging those sins that blot my soul; parts forever torn. It is for this reason that I cannot sympathize with them no matter how deeply I empathize with the struggle they abide in. The sight of a vagrant evokes no compassion in me, only a dark reminder of my own demons currently chained. It is for this reason that I quickly turned my attention back to France and the sensual pleasures that awaited me there when I recognized the disquiet in those blue orbs and when my brain screamed transient.
Something niggled at the corner of my mind, however, refusing to let me cast him aside and drawing me steadily away from the lilacs that lined Méséglise Way and back to the bustle of the café. When I glanced again at him, I noticed more than just those disturbed glacial eyes. His hair, while mussed, was clean and free of tangles, and it was clear that it often met with a barber’s scissors. The navy and cream weave of his shirt was worn but freshly laundered, as were the faded blue jeans that fit loosely on his frame. A guitar sat silently on his lap, momentarily ignored but still held carefully by two calloused hands. This man held onto his humanity with a tenuous but firm grip. I could almost feel the tension of that struggle inside of him; the tenacity with which he clung to not just his humanity, but also, perhaps his grip on reality.
It was during this closer examination that I noticed how his hand hovered near his guitar, dancing with the idea of strumming those strings. Of its own volition, that hand floated up, shakily before he brought it under control, forcing it to lie placidly on his leg. Again it rose up defiantly as he tried to take it to the glistening copper wire strung tightly along the wood. Frowning, knitting his brows together in concentration, the man worked in vain to bring that errant hand under control before giving up and placing the guitar back in its place. In the psychology world, they call this the Thorazine Shuffle. It is an unfortunate side effect of many antipsychotic drugs.
As those glassy eyes surveyed the café around him, my heart broke. I must retract a part of my previous rant of anti-sympathetic tendencies. There is one group of vagabonds for which my heart bleeds and my soul screams in helpless agony, and for which I would move mountains to help if only I could. Those who wander in this world because their mind prevents them from living like the rest of us do, those who, not by needle or habitual drug use, have struggled with their grip on reality; they are the symbol of all we have failed to accomplish in this supposedly civilized society. The fact that we let them wander on, turning a blind eye to their need, failing to help them bear the burden of a treacherous brain, will be the greatest black mark on our soul when at last we are weighed and judged. Instead of cradling and caring for them as we might one with a physical disability, we turn from them, filled with a fear that we might somehow catch what they have; all the while believing that somehow they must have brought this upon themselves. These poor souls have been betrayed by their brain, through no fault of their own, and by a society that shuns what it does not understand.
I wonder about the man, about his guitar, and about those unsmiling lips. To whom does he return when he leaves here? What does he struggle with? Is he alone in his battle? To be mentally ill is to be alone in a way few would understand, regardless of those around who support and care for the person. The baristas are gentle and sweet with him and do not give him the wide birth that the patrons do. He speaks with them any time they move by, eager for interaction with another soul. Until today, I had not heard the tenor of his voice, though I felt a kinship with him, as if by seeing him so often he had become an important part of my life.
This morning, as I found my way to a cozy table amid the buzz of conversation and fragrant pull of roasted coffee beans, I noticed that my friend sat at the bar, beyond which busy baristas commenced in their daily dance of brewing, steaming and mixing. On the granite counter before him sat several empty paper cups, stacked neatly, the innards of the top cup revealing its vanquished burden in the dark stains that swirled along the inner edge of the lip. I looked from the dark head of my friend to Proust, whom I would probably be reading for the rest of my days, relishing the pleasure and putting off the end. When I finally turn the last page, I know that I will at once return to the first and read it again in a long, languid stretch. Proust is my talisman, my little bit of sanity in a world gone insane. His words are a reminder that, despite all the evil in this world, there is beauty and purity to be found if one remembers how to look for it.
My stomach gurgles and I am pulled from the random track of my mind and back into my seat. Greedily I open a crisp white bag that cradles a warm bagel, teaming with an almost vulgar display of seeds and cheese. Sheepishly, I had ordered cream cheese to go with my bagel, knowing I should be satisfied with the richness that the doughy bread already held, but not wishing to limit my gluttony. Now I pulled out the cup of soft cheese and studied the knife that I would use to smear it in lewd sweeps across the pale face of my bagel. The edge was not serrated and bumpy as would be expected but instead swooped in a smooth plastic oval.
“A spoon,” I uttered in a perplexed voice.
A woman sitting a table away looked up at me and frowned. I continued to study the utensil as if it was some new implement that might bring magic to the act of cheesing my bagel. Turning my attention to the little cup of cheese, I considered using the backside of the spoon to add the treasure of that white-creamy bit of heaven to my rapidly cooling treat. Slowly, I sighed and wiggled out of my seat with some effort. I was already a glutton; I didn’t need to add sloth to the long list of charges as well. I made my way to the bar and paused alongside my worn and disturbed friend, smiling at him as I waited for a server to come near enough that I could request the appropriate plastic ware.
“How many months?”
At first, I was startled by the smooth and deep edges of his voice, the words slightly slurred, as if it required great effort to form them. Perhaps his tongue was out of practice, or maybe this was just another side effect of whatever he took to help him keep his tenacious hold on the world. Previously, when he spoke with a waiter or waitress who drifted near him, his words were always swallowed by the surrounding noise before they could drift to my beckoning ears. Wrapped up as I was in the sound of his voice, it took me a while before I put meaning to the words. How many months? The string of words at first perplexed me, and I cocked my head at him in the same manner that my dog does to me. Then I remembered the swell of my stomach, no longer subtle but blatant and demanding of attention.
“About a month and a half,” I responded.
“Until?” He prompted, wanting me to confirm my pregnancy.
Or perhaps he wished for me to announce that in a short time an alien would spring from the ridiculous roundness of my belly and happily run about. Maybe, instead, I kept a secret hidden inside my shirt whose spherical abundance I would share with the world in only a month and a half. As my mind continued on this strange litany, I realized that I might have more than just a little crazy hiding out in the depths of my brain.
“Until I have the baby,” I smiled. He didn’t seem put-off by my strange lulls in conversation as other people often did.
“Birth is an amazing thing,” He informed me before returning his attention to the coffee cup that he currently nursed, dismissing me as abruptly as he had acknowledged me.
I traded my spoon and returned to my sunny vantage point. Once settled in, I glanced at Swann’s Way before studying my beautiful friend as he sipped on his coffee and said something to the barista on break, who seated herself two chairs down from him and spoke softly in response. A gurgling once again reminded me of my desired gluttony, and I smeared and devoured my adorned bagel before letting my eyes drift across the room to where my muse perched. I found the spot vacant, and again I wondered. I wondered so many things.